How to Spot a Dysfunctional Team

Many characteristics lead to team dysfunction. This article will highlight what to look out for. It is beneficial to Managers & HR Professionals who have identified issues within their team but cannot pinpoint where the problem stems from.

The article will also highlight how team building activities fit into the picture and what areas these activities can help develop your team.

To understand what team dysfunction is, let’s start with the five dysfunctions of a team as told by Patrick Lencioni in his book of the same name.

Those are; Absence of trust, Fear of Conflict, Lack of Commitment, Avoidance of Accountability and Inattention to results. These primary traits create dysfunction, a team that does not work together well to achieve their common goal.

These five dysfunctions can be broken down into more granular examples to help a manager or HR professional identify dysfunction in the team.

Toxicity Vs Cognitive Conflict

The first point to make is about conflict. Understanding conflict and how it operates in a team is a little complicated. It’s tempting to believe that no conflict equals a happy, productive team.

However, it is not as simple as that.

If team members have conflicting views about solving the problem and regularly debate solutions, sometimes causing conflict. There could be cognitive conflict in the team, which is good. Kotlyar, I., & Karakowsky, L. (2007)

Some level of conflict is a good thing as long as it is the right type of conflict. Cognitive conflict is positive for teams if team members actively engage in discussing the task.

Teams that do not engage in cognitive conflict prioritise blending into the team and keeping the peace over ensuring that the task is completed to the highest standard.

These teams prioritise team relationships over results which leads to poor outcomes. It’s essential that team members feel safe enough to voice their opinions and disagree with other team members.

Toxicity, on the other hand, is to be avoided. Toxicity can quickly escalate into a significant issue, destroy team morale, and make an incredibly stressful work environment. Toxicity can be defined as; intolerance, bullying, narcissism, burnout, workplace violence, and a myriad of people problems Goldman, A. (2008)

One way toxicity can quickly develop is when team members do not have the emotional intelligence to solve issues. If there is an unhealthy conflict between two or more team members and this issue is not resolved, it could build over many years.

A minor issue between two members can become a huge one affecting the broader team of many individuals. These two team members can act out their anger in unhealthy ways instead of addressing the problem head-on.

It is essential for HR to monitor these issues and offer solutions for employees to resolve issues. For example, they could be offered external counseling, anger management or conflict resolution training.

Lack of team development leads to dysfunctional teams

Something else to look at is team development. If there is no team development planned and executed, then it is likely that there will be some level of dysfunction within the team. This is particularly true in large organisations with individuals who might be members of multiple teams. Keyton, J. (1999).

Team development should go through 5 stages; forming, storming, norming, performing and adjourning. Tuckman, B. W. (1965)

In the initial “forming” stage, a team comes together. Then, they will go through a “storming” phase when the team should see the highest levels of conflict.

In a healthy team with a good level of emotional intelligence, the team members should get through this conflict and travel through to the “norming” stage. At this stage, the team has worked out how they will be working together.

The “performing” stage is reached once the team members can execute well in their roles and have built a good level of trust with their teammates. Finally, “adjourning” happens once the team has accomplished its task and gotten the desired result.

Team building can help this process along and ensure that the desired levels of trust are built among team members. For advice about running team building activities, get in touch to discuss.

Team building activities create psychological safety, creating a fertile ground for cognitive conflict.

As discussed previously, this type of conflict is healthy to find in teams. When team members trust one another, they can resolve issues quickly, find the correct solution, and then move on.

Lack of knowledge leads to dysfunctional teams

The final point to make relates to HR decision-making regarding hiring and training. If the individuals in a team do not have a certain level of shared knowledge, they will find it challenging to communicate. Common language is essential amongst team members who should be able to speak easily with one another.

There are different levels of knowledge required. Team members need topic knowledge but also organisational knowledge. They should be experts in their fields and speak the language of the company.

This is particularly important in research teams. Lack of knowledge was cited as one of the top concerns of researchers being interviewed to join a new team. O’Cathain, A., Murphy, E., & Nicholl, J. (2008)


This article highlighted key characteristics of a dysfunctional team and has given clear examples of what to look out for. It is sometimes possible to pick up on issues intuitively; however, it is crucial to identify the exact problem so it can be resolved.

This can be a little more difficult.

HR must play an active role by booking meetings with heads of departments and team leaders. Employees will generally feel more comfortable speaking to their team leader or manager over HR, who they usually do not know well.

If dysfunction is going to be identified and dealt with effectively, there must be a plan for identifying it within the organisation.

Practical elements play into this, mainly dependent on budget and resources. However, no matter the constraints, a little planning goes a long way.

If lack of team development has been identified as the core reason for team dysfunction, and there is no plan for improvement, get in touch with one of our team members who can discuss team building activities suitable for your organisation.

No team development is a recipe for team dysfunction and this is something that our team can help you correct.




Goldman, A. (2008). Company on the Couch. Journal of Management Inquiry, 17(3), 226–238.

Keyton, J. (1999). Analyzing Interaction Patterns in Dysfunctional Teams. Small Group Research, 30(4), 491–518.

Kotlyar, I., & Karakowsky, L. (2007). Falling Over Ourselves to Follow the Leader. Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies, 14(1), 38–49.

O’Cathain, A., Murphy, E., & Nicholl, J. (2008). Multidisciplinary, Interdisciplinary, or Dysfunctional? Team Working in Mixed-Methods Research. Qualitative Health Research, 18(11), 1574–1585.

Tuckman, B. W. (1965). Developmental sequence in small groups. Psychological Bulletin, 63(6), 384–399.