When Good Teams Go Wrong

Ruth Dubinsky
Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of his/her employer, GxP Lifeline, its editor or MasterControl, Inc.

How's your team doing? Are you hitting your targets without leaving "dead bodies" in the wake? Do you sense trust, commitment, and accountability from your fellow team members?

If the answer is yes, fantastic—you're in an elite club! But if your team is like many others, sometimes (or more often than not) you feel "dysfunctional." Not quite working on all cylinders... not cooperating or communicating well... not making decisions that stick. Dealing with power struggles that exhaust and frustrate everyone. Running on empty.

So, what makes good teams go wrong? It's rarely a lack of technical skills. Many good teams have all the experience and technical knowhow they need. But they tend to miss or ignore signals that suggest the rudimentary, essential elements of teamwork are absent on their team—and they are unable or unwilling to recognize how this dysfunction sabotages their efforts.

So, what makes good teams go wrong? It's rarely a lack of technical skills. Many good teams have all the experience and technical knowhow they need. But they tend to miss or ignore signals....

Don't be discouraged. The "team essentials" are all within your span of control. Challenge your team to watch more closely for signals of team trouble.

Three Signals That Spell Trouble

1. Signals that goals and objectives are unclear:
There's confusion on the team. Not everyone on the team can see the targets they're shooting for. They're tentative, or skeptical in their approach. They question any decision or call for action. You sense either reluctance or complacency.

What to do? Get the team on solid ground. Discuss:

  • What milestones have been reached? What milestones have been missed?
  • What major milestones are approaching, and what has to happen when?
  • What problems impacting timelines need to be discussed and resolved?

2. Signals that roles and responsibilities are an issue:
There are either redundancies or gaps in efforts. Some actions are being "owned" by more than one person and some actions are being missed altogether. Priorities or expectations aren't aligned. The team collectively doesn't know what each person contributes to the overall effort. There's a power struggle over who owns a decision.

What to do? Put all the cards on the table. It's no surprise that when teams talk about what they need and expect from each other they are better equipped to integrate their work. Have each team member answer:

  • Based on the team's upcoming goals, what tasks do you need to complete in the next 6-12 months?
  • What other functions are you most dependent upon to reach your deliverables?
  • What decisions do you need to be part of? Informed of?
  • What do you need from other team members?

3. Signals that relationships need attention:
Internal and external relationships are breaking down. Some team members aren't viewed as reliable or trustworthy. Conflict is avoided or totally out of control. People either tend to dance around issues or just shut down.

What to do? Don't ignore it—deal with it. These kinds of issues are the "thornier" side of teamwork but don't make the mistake of hoping the issues just go away. Give team members direct data about themselves and the issues.

  • Establish team operating norms. Team operating norms address teamwork from several dimensions. Some are operational in nature, such as meeting management, and others more intangible such as listening with intent to understand each other when making decisions. Both types of operating norms go a long way in building team trust, and ultimately lead to better and faster results.
  • Conduct a team "pulse check" using a survey or a questionnaire. Ask team members how often they agree with the following statements:
    • Our team leader is skillfully managing the interactions on our team.
    • We don't shut down opinions we disagree with; open debate is encouraged.
    • We build on the ideas of others.
    • It is clear which decisions belong to the entire team and which belong to individuals on the team.
    • Team members are aware of where responsibilities begin and end.
    • Once a decision has been reached, our team commits to and supports the agreed-upon action plan.
    • Our team members are confident that others on the team can/will deliver on their responsibilities.
    • Periodically, we stop the action and reflect on "lessons learned" to assess and improve our work together.
    • People on this team treat each other with respect.
    • People on this team give each other the benefit of the doubt.
    • People on this team effectively manage their emotions.
    • Our team meetings are productive and well-managed.

You can reinvent your team. Think about it. You're surrounded with technical and scientific excellence on your team. You just need better cooperation and team functioning. If you watch for signals of dysfunction and address them, ensuring the basics of teamwork are covered, you'll give your team the best possible chance for success.

Ruth Dubinsky, president and founder of Clarity Consulting, has worked in the healthcare industry for over 35 years. Clarity Consulting, Inc. (www.clarityint.com), located in Ambler, PA, was founded in 2006 as a small, boutique consulting firm serving primarily the pharmaceutical and biotech industry. At the organization level, Dubinsky works with companies who wish to build the requisite team structures, governance, roles, and competencies needed by management, team leaders, and team members to break down silos and operate cross-functionally. At the department level, she works with functional heads who seek better cooperation and teamwork from their staff. At the intact team level, she helps teams assess and recover from breakdowns, deal with inevitable conflict, make better, faster decisions - and accelerate their work. She may be reached at dubin.clarity@verizon.net.