Project Management Institute

The turn around artist

Dysfunctional teams drain money, time and energy from projects. It's time to move past the drama and get down to business.

Mark Gray, NXP Semiconductors,
Colombelles, France


by Sarah Fister Gale * photos by Eric Bouvet

The signs
are all there—

the bickering, the backstabbing, the angst. It's not pretty. And everything from team morale to client satisfaction suffers as a result.

Yet, in many cases, the team and its leader somehow remain oblivious.

Production lags. And still, instead of taking steps to solve the problems, people soldier on until the project either ends or falls apart, says Keith Carlson, president and CEO of Innotas, a project portfolio management systems provider in San Francisco, California, USA.

“Most dysfunctional teams don't even realize they are dysfunctional,” he says, adding that teams remain that way because leaders reinforce negative behavior. “It's always the leader's responsibility to model the right behavior, or the team won't follow suit.”

Actually identifying whether you're part of a dysfunctional team is the first step toward recovery, says Patrick Lencioni, president of The Table Group, a consulting group in Lafayette, California, USA, and author of Overcoming the Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Field Guide for Leaders, Managers, and Facilitators [Jossey-Bass, 2005].

He suggests asking the following questions:

  • Are team members open about their opinions?
  • Does every team member contribute to the overall objectives?
  • Do team members enjoy going to their team meetings—and feel those meetings are productive?
  • Do team members think about the team's results before they think about their own?

“If the answer to any of these questions is ‘no,’ then this could be a sign of team dysfunction,” Mr. Lencioni says.

There are many characteristics of dysfunctional teams, but the issue always circles back to a lack of trust and poor communication. “Trust is the basis of building effective teams,” he says. When trust is established, “team members feel comfortable admitting their weaknesses, recognizing when they are wrong and apologizing to their teammates if they were out of line.”

Many teams are quick to blame a lack of resources or time as sparking the dysfunction, but these are the symptoms, not the cause, says Arthur Shelley, author of The Organizational Zoo: A Survival Guide to Workplace Behavior [Aslan Publishing, 2006].

“A great team will find a way past these issues or provide the logic as to why they have to delay or kill the project if it can't be done well enough with what is available,” he says. “With the right combination of attitude, focus on the issues and working together, a well-behaved team will be functional and generate an acceptable outcome regardless of the situation.”

Mr. Carlson agrees that communication breakdowns are at the heart of the matter—and that often can be traced to an overly controlling team leader.

“If team members don't talk to each other and have to go to the leader for every decision to be made, it creates the greatest dysfunction,” he says. He dubs this the “mountain peak factor,” in which all communication must go up to the top then back down again.

Mr. Carlson spent several months in this situation as a team leader in a dot-com company early in his career. By all appearances, it was the epitome of communication and functionality. “The office space was an open-plan warehouse with no walls,” he says. “It was designed to foster communication.”

Despite the user-friendly setup, the company's leadership required control over every decision made by the project teams. “Because of that, you could be sitting next to the person with the information you needed, but you'd still have to ask your boss to ask his boss to ask that person to give you what you needed,” Mr. Carlson says. “It created bureaucracy and politics where it wasn't needed, which made the employees unhappy and less productive.”

And that's never good, which is why team leaders must fix dysfunctional teams as soon as problems arise or put their project—and their career—at risk.

If a project is so very dysfunctional that a new project manager is brought in, leaders must make a strong effort to reestablish a trusting team culture, Mr. Lencioni says.

But don't expect it to be all sunshine and rainbows. Members of a failing team who've lost their leader will probably not be the most receptive group. “That means the new leader will have to be vulnerable and admit to the team members that [he or she] doesn't always have the answers,” he says.

Leaders also need to clearly define roles and expectations right from the start, adds Susan Stevens, lead trainer at Maven Training, a project and program management training company in London, England. “The new leader should meet with each team member individually before meeting with the group,” she suggests. “This step is often skipped to save time, but without that initial communication, you will lose productivity in later group meetings.”

Those meetings can also provide the information needed to assess the team makeup and determine whether new blood could solve some of the problems, she says. “Sometimes there are too many of the same kinds of people on a team, which can cause problems at different phases of a project.” For example, having a team comprised entirely of idea generators can be very productive early on, but there may be some breakdowns when all those brilliant ideas need to be executed.

deal with it

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”—Tolstoy

Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy may have been on to something when it comes to project teams, too. Every dysfunctional team is dysfunctional in its own way. But they do share some common behaviors. Here's how to identify and deal with them, according to Patrick Lencioni, author of Overcoming the Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Field Guide for Leaders, Managers, and Facilitators.

lack of trust

Team members are uncomfortable admitting their faults, mistakes or need for help.

What to do about it: Encourage vulnerability among team members—they need to understand one another's strengths and weaknesses, and be able to ask for help when they need it.

fear of conflict

Team members are unwilling to engage in passionate, unfiltered discussions about important issues.

What to do about it: Demand debate and mine for areas of conflict. It's also helpful to have an understanding of each team member's conflict threshold.

inability to commit

Team members fail to achieve buy-in around clear decisions and courses of action.

What to do about it: It's helpful for team members to review their commitments at the end of every meeting. Teams should also have a scoreboard they can reference to determine how they're measuring up to their commitments.

lack of accountability

Team members fail to confront one another around behaviors and deliverables that don't conform to agreed-upon decisions.

What to do about it: Team members should frequently review their commitments and discuss standards of performance. This encourages what Mr. Lencioni calls peer-to-peer accountability. Peer pressure and the concern of letting down a colleague will motivate a team player more than any fear of punishment or rebuke.

inattention to results

Team members put their individual needs for career development and recognition before the collective goals of the team.

What to do about it: Leaders should devise financial and recognition incentives geared to the overall performance of the team and not just the individual.

inside the zoo

Organizations are a lot like zoos—unnatural environments where animals of all stripes and types are pushed together into small cages (or cubicles) and forced to interact, says Arthur Shelley, author of The Organizational Zoo: A Survival Guide to Workplace Behavior [Aslan Publishing, 2006]. And your inner animal may determine the kind of project manager you will be—and how you deal with team members. Below, he shares his views on the three beasts that fare best in the project management habitat.

the lion The lion may be king of the jungle and sound like the obvious choice for a team leader. But these big cats can sometimes let their aggression and demand for the spotlight get the better of them, Mr. Shelley says. He defines lions as people who are aggressive leaders and who “rule the pride through fear.”

Lions do make good team leaders on mega-projects where they are allowed to take control and have the authority to make sure the job gets done, he says. “In big projects that have high-profile successes, the desire for the spotlight can definitely be a plus,” Mr. Shelley says.

the owl “The owl is the eternal mentor, always willing to share knowledge in order to develop others,” Mr. Shelley says. Owls are wise, dedicated and respected.

“Owls make good leaders on research-based development projects, especially those that include promising young workers who will benefit from their expertise and guidance,” he adds. “They are great at delegating and supporting team members, and they don't need a lot of recognition for their efforts.”

the hyena Hyenas are pack ambushers who achieve power and success through gangs, according to Mr. Shelley's definition. They are controlling, manipulative, and not particularly trustworthy or caring. Although outwardly it's an unflattering description, Mr. Shelley believes hyenas make the best project managers. “They are aggressive and they are used to scavenging,” he says. “In project management, where you never get all the resources that you need, that's a great trait.”

Even though hyenas are individuals, they will work in packs if it will help them achieve their goals, and that's very useful, especially in a program management office in which multiple projects are interconnected.

As any zookeeper will tell you, the key is to maintain variety. “You don't want a team full of whales or jackals or bees,” Mr. Shelley says. “Diversity of roles is what makes the project work.”

To find out just what each creature brings to the team, head over to

If new people are added to the roster, their roles should be clearly explained to the existing team members, or leaders risk adding fuel to the fire. “If no one takes the time to induct the new members to the team, they may feel isolated or confused about their role, which makes them unproductive, and that can cause resentment,” she says. “Instead, develop a plan for the new team members that includes introducing them to the processes and culture of the team.”

If the team leader doesn't have the authority to add new people to a struggling team—as is often the case with project managers—Ms. Stevens suggests identifying the team's weaknesses and then building in processes to work around them. For example, create regular progress-evaluation reports or openly recognize completion of key steps to encourage idea generators to finish their work. If the team is made up of task-oriented clock-watchers, establish brainstorming sessions that focus on developing new ideas.

Project leaders need to establish clear goals for the team and to deal directly with existing issues, such as missed deadlines. “The new leader needs to do what I call ‘enter the danger’ and have the courage to step in to the middle of a difficult issue,” Mr. Lencioni says. “Leaders who overcome their need to avoid uncomfortable situations and enter the danger often defuse a potentially harmful issue.”

Most dysfunctional teams don't even realize they are dysfunctional. —Keith Carlson, Innotas, San Francisco, California, USA

Mark Gray certainly “entered the danger” when he was put in charge of a failing missile development project early in his career. “When I took over, I had no credibility with the team members, and they had no faith in the management or in the project, which everyone expected to fail,” says Mr. Gray, now senior project manager for NXP Semiconductors in Colombelles, France.

As the new leader, he began by bringing the team together at a corporate facility to restate the project objectives, build a team mission statement and develop communication strategies. “Writing the mission statement caused a lot of interpersonal conflicts to flare up,” he says, noting that the team was made up of several “alpha male personalities.”

Two team members in particular were arguing heatedly on the deck outside of the facility, so Mr. Gray—looking to ease the tension—pushed them both into the pool.

“It was a spur-of-the-moment reaction, but it diffused the situation,” he says. When the two men recovered from the shock, they pulled Mr. Gray into the water with them and soon the others followed suit. “In the end, everyone was laughing and swimming, and the arguing stopped.”

Afterward, Mr. Gray ordered food and beer for the group, and they were able to move beyond their conflicts and start talking about what they needed to do to move forward.

He admits throwing your teammates into a pool isn't always the right move, but finding a way to eliminate conflict and create bonding opportunities goes a long way toward creating trust and commitment on a team.

“The project was a success after that meeting because it built a foundation of trust,” he says. “After that, if problems came up, they weren't afraid to ask each other for help.”

Creating face-to-face opportunities for team building is critical, Mr. Gray says, and he goes to great lengths to make it happen. “When I take over a project, I like to start by getting everyone in one place to identify means of communication, align goals and establish details such as the work breakdown structure and risk elements, all while letting everyone get to know each other,” he says.

Unfortunately, sometimes a little thing like the budget gets in the way.

Recently, Mr. Gray was given control of a ₠6 million mobile communication platform development project, the result of merging five different ones. Here again, he decided to make a radical choice to support his team, which included 78 engineers from seven business units located at nine sites around the world.

When he asked permission to bring the heads of each team together in one place to kick off the project, the company executives said there was no budget for team building. “So I told them the project would fail,” he says.

And for a while it did.

All the disparate teams floundered and Mr. Gray got no sleep as he fielded calls from frustrated engineers in half a dozen time zones. After three months, he decided he'd had enough. He made a bold move—using a budget line item of half a million euros, to bring 27 engineers to Cambridge, England, under the pretext of buying intellectual property.

“We also spent four days together doing team-building exercises,” he says. During the trip, team members aligned goals and priorities, and built an informal communication network that allowed them to connect directly with each other instead of always turning to Mr. Gray for help.

“There were still problems on the project, but after that meeting, the engineers knew each other and had the same vision,” he says.

When he was called in to explain the expenditure, he was honest about what he'd done, and his boss backed him up. “I had the trust of my boss, and that was key,” he says. “As the team leader, you have to have the sponsorship of management to get these kinds of things done.”

And they all lived happily ever after. PM

Sarah Fister Gale is a freelance business writer based in Chicago, Illinois, USA.

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI.

OCTOBER 2007 |



Related Content

  • Pulse InDepth Report2_Diversity

    A Case for Diversity

    PMI research shows project teams that draw from an array of perspectives and skillsets deliver powerful outcomes.

  • Pulse of the Profession

    A Case for Diversity

    PMI research shows project teams that draw from an array of perspectives and skillsets deliver powerful outcomes.

  • Tomorrow's Teams Today

    Tomorrow’s Teams Today

    PMI research reveals that it’s the organizations with creative, collaborative and agile teams that will thrive in The Project Economy.

  • Pulse of the Profession

    Tomorrow's Teams Today

    By PMI PMI research reveals that it’s the organizations with creative, collaborative and agile teams that will thrive in The Project Economy.

  • PM Network

    Fast Forward

    Organizations and their teams will have to adapt—and quickly—if they want to maintain their competitive advantage, according to PMI's latest Pulse of the Profession®.