Unhealthy Team Patterns

In many workplaces, the key to the effective performance of the organization is a good “team” dynamic. If a team gets along well, the company prospers because staff is happy. But if not, the organization can be the victim.

Debbie’s team fell into the latter category. She was a senior manager at a paper goods factory in Surrey, B.C. As leader of a team of 10 supervisors at the plant, Debbie was responsible for running an effective team and making the weekly meetings productive.

The team had been under-performing for some time but Debbie had been too busy to deal with the problem. Then one day, a serious accident occurred at another plant – under someone else’s supervision. The accident report that Debbie read highlighted a lack of supervisor vigilance around safety.

The accident was a wake-up call for Debbie. Her own team was apathetic and she suspected that apathy might some day come back to haunt her in the form of an accident, lowered productivity, or higher turnover.

Debbie began to observe her team more closely as a result of the accident. She noticed that supervisors seemed to be going through the motions and were uninterested during meetings. No one volunteered information, many sat silently and others seemed distracted or preoccupied. Meetings ended on time, assignments were grudgingly accepted and on the surface, the job seemed to get done.

Yet Debbie’s team was exhibiting a particular interpersonal pattern of withdrawal we call the “Shut-Down Team” pattern. In our practice, we have observed three patterns that indicate an under-functioning team.

As well as the withdrawal pattern, teams can show two other common interactions – the attack pattern, resulting in Hostile Teams, and the attack-withdraw pattern characterized by the “Hit and Run” Team.

Teams exhibiting these patterns don’t “choose” them. The patterns are developed based on several factors, including the team member’s personal style when confronted with challenges and difficulties at work; early childhood experiences and their individual responses to stress.

Most importantly, it is the leader who sets the stage for a particular dynamic to occur. Neglectful, hostile, controlling, insecure or self-pitying leaders can set these dynamics in motion, making the leader both part of the problem and the key to the solution.

1. Shut Down Teams
In Debbie’s case, her team had metaphorically “checked out”. It felt unfulfilled, unmotivated and uninspired.

The team lacked creativity because a leader lacking enthusiasm and interest has shut down lively discussion. The team didn’t think it mattered and felt it was marking time. Commitment to the job was low. Staff focused more on outside work activities.

Team members of this sort feel, “Why bother?”, and “When am I off?” A feeling of lassitude pervades team meetings. Staff feels powerless to influence its workplace.

Withdrawal dynamics are often inadvertently triggered by a lack of a committed, visionary leader. Instead of challenging staff, helping them find meaning or purpose at work, the leader doesn’t see development opportunities and engenders mediocrity.

This was the case with Debbie’s team. The team had observed Debbie over five years. Despite her hard work she had neglected to inspire or develop her staff. Supervisor meetings had become just another “to-do” item on her list. She had stopped putting effort into the meetings. Her staff followed suit.

2. Hostile Teams
Unlike Debbie’s apathetic team, this type of team spends time fighting each other – in meetings, between themselves and for the leader’s “benefit” (e.g., brown-nosing – a passive aggressive get- ahead strategy). Direct attacks on others can occur, complete with yelling, barking and desk thumping. In response, other team members retaliate the same way, thinking “I’m not going to let him or her get away with that.”

Direct attacks are not the only weapons these hostile teams use. Members will talk behind colleagues’ backs or undermine others’ performance by withholding information. Passive-aggressive tactics such as spreading gossip about a co-worker, capitalizing on other’s vulnerabilities and using sarcastic comments contribute to the battle.

Hostile team members threaten colleagues with being ostracized from the group, point out faults, “spy” on each other and report their observations to the leader. Team members typically try to score points in the leader’s eyes and will even gang up on one individual to try to make a scapegoat out of him or her.

These kinds of dynamics are insidious and harm staff and the organization. High turnover levels, sick leave and disability claims, lack of efficiency and effectiveness, zero communication and cooperation damage the bottom line.

Leaders of hostile teams play favourites, encourage unfair and unproductive competition between members, promote an aggressive style of relating and use bullying to control staff.

3. Hit and Run Team
This is a combination of the above two except that team members tend to attack each other in retaliation rather than as a bullying tactic. Team members then withdraw from the team as a form of self preservation.

Teams exhibiting this pattern swing from hostile and aggressive interactions to withdrawn, self-preserving responses. Team members may vent their anger towards one another and then follow up with aloofness and silence. After having borne the brunt of either overt hostility or the passive aggressive variety, team members withdraw from one another and plot revenge. A veneer of cool civility prevails, but in fact combatants are storing their hurts, violations, and grudges inside until an explosion is inevitable.

This cycle is based on feelings of helplessness and passivity coupled with an “I’m not going to take this anymore” mentality. Withdrawal from the team is usually similar to pouting or self-pity and is accompanied by thoughts like “I’m not appreciated around here”; “I’ll show them how valuable I am”; “They won’t suck me dry/criticize me anymore” and “I might as well just give up, what I do/say doesn’t matter anyway”.

Once colleagues have withdrawn from one another, irritation begins to build and the withdrawal period becomes untenable to staff egos. They decide they aren’t going to be “victims” to this group; they won’t allow anyone to run them into the ground or it’s time for a big change around here.

Meanwhile work takes a back seat. The result is that creative energy pours into fighting and self-pity rather than the good of the company.

Leaders of these teams are erratic, either abandoning the staff to the toxicity or stepping in to aggressively assert their own dominance.

Debbie used the sister plant’s accident as an impetus to talk to her team about what she observed, how the withdrawal dynamic affected the organization and how she was responsible for the pattern the team had exhibited.

The team responded candidly to Debbie. Staff spoke about how bored they had become and how work had lost importance and meaning for them. They agreed with Debbie that she had not been the most inspirational team leader but said they had to take responsibility for that too.

Team members contributed more in meetings, took initiative, were less routine in their thinking, tackled problems with an eye to solutions and contributed to creating more efficient processes and procedures.

Dr. Jennifer Newman and Dr. Darryl Grigg are registered psychologists and directors of Newman & Grigg Psychological and Consulting Services Ltd., a Vancouver-based corporate training and development partnership. They can be contacted at sunmail@newmangrigg.com

Identifying information in cases cited has been changed to protect confidentiality.

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