By Laurie Cure, PhD

It happens everywhere. Teams that lack collaboration and connection, leaders who feel deceptive, and colleagues who are rewarded for passive-aggressive behaviors. Dysfunction in the workplace impacts engagement, culture, and performance. In the last week alone, I compiled the following examples which were shared with me in various discussions with leaders. You might find them familiar. 

  • You just completed a crucial conversation with a colleague. You thought it went well and the two of you created some agreements on the next steps to move the issue forward. The next day, you hear that your teammate spoke to two others on the team complaining about you and indicating they would never do as you both agreed. They only agreed “to appease you”. 
  • You worked hard on a project and hoped it would give you a chance to lead a new work team. The results were amazing and, yet, when the new opportunity came, one of the “favorites” got the role. You were asked to “make them look good” and you were expected to be a “solid team player”. 
  • A team came together to discuss a process that was recently implemented. For the majority of the conversation, people complained that they didn’t understand their role and said things like, “I don’t even know what we are supposed to do anyway”. Most of the meeting was spent rehashing expectations that were outlined in the previous meeting, that “no one seemed to get” and you feel stuck.
  • Your supervisor comes to you and says that “someone told them that you. . . “ (fill in the blank with whatever gossip or rumor might be spreading).
  • Or the infamous, “we tried that, and it didn’t work” or “we are already doing that”.

There are a million examples, and my guess is you are remembering some yourself as well. Managing individual dysfunction is hard enough, but when it multiplies across a team or organizational culture, it can feel like death from a thousand cuts.  One study found dysfunctional behavior occurs in 5 categories: 

  1. Envy and Jealousy
  2. Theft
  3. Bullying
  4. Violence
  5. Harassment

Other studies have found and added narcissism, resistance to change, disorganization, and aggressiveness to the list. Regardless of how we label it, as employees and leaders within an organization, we know it when we see it (or feel it). The impact of these types of behaviors on an organization is significant. 87% of workers indicated that workplace incivility has an impact on their and others’ work performance including lower morale, poor decision making, higher levels of stress, increased absenteeism, lower productivity, and higher turnover. There are other ways it surfaces as well, such as cultures of micromanagement, “always on”, where expectations are high for non-stop work and productivity, as well as teams where every person is out for themselves. These environments leave employees and leaders struggling to know the best way to respond. 

So, what is a person to do?   

Take the high road It can be tempting to want revenge when we feel wronged by dysfunctional workplace behavior. You are better off focusing on your own behaviors and resisting the urge to defend or argue with the offender. The more you engage, the more ammunition is provided for a fight you did not seek.   

Don’t play the losing game Establish your own personal boundaries and be clear about what you will and will not tolerate. Some organizations have dysfunctional cultures that have defined them for years while other times, teams are just dealing with a couple of individuals who are engaging in problematic behaviors. Determine how your situation needs to be handled and take the right approach. Set an example, continue doing the right thing even when you want to disengage, and establish your own limits to ensure you remain healthy.   

Seek Allies Find allies, not that you can commiserate with, but that will hold you to a higher standard and allow you to be the best you. There is a saying that you are the average of the 5 people you spend the most time with. Who are the 5 people at work you are closest to? Are those the individuals who influence you the most and you are most like? Do they reflect who you want to be? If not, consider your other options. Are there individuals in the organization you admire and would want to add to your Top 5? Who needs to come off the list? Choosing your allies will ensure you stay on the high road.   

As a leader:  

Watch for the signs  It can be tempting to ignore the issues. We might assume the problem will correct itself, maybe hoping the employees will figure it out on their own. Many leaders also believe they can create workarounds for the problem behaviors, like transferring the employee to another team to remove them from assignments. In the end, this only makes the problem worse. When you watch for the signs and don’t bury your head in the sand, you can proactively address the behaviors before they lead to long-term damage. Actively addressing dysfunctional behavior is critical. Otherwise, you are giving your unspoken consent for it to continue.  If you are watching for signs, you will also be able to ensure psychological safety is being created in your teams. This will allow everyone to feel comfortable speaking up and voicing opinions without retribution by peers.

Change your mindset Often, dysfunctional behaviors can make us feel flattered or that we are being helpful. When someone works hard and long hours to finish a project, we see that as commitment. Or, when someone comes to us with problems they are having with a co-worker or to provide the information they are observing about the team, we offer appreciation. In reality, we need to be cautious about when these observations are benefiting the greater team and when they are self-serving of the employee. As leaders, we help to create expectations, boundaries, and norms amongst our team members. If we entertain inappropriate conversations, behaviors, or habits, we unconsciously reinforce those behaviors. Examine your mindset and determine what beliefs you are holding that you need to change for the benefit of your team. As an example, the next time you have an employee come to you complaining about a colleague, get clear on the problem and propose that this discussion becomes a team dialogue.   

Don’t make personal attacks We are all guilty of it. As I was coaching a leader recently, I made the mistake of saying that as an individual they were struggling with a “doozy”. In reality, most of us are trying our best to do the right thing and we believe that our behavior is beneficial in some way. As a leader, when we assume positive intent, we can address the behavior, not the person. Avoid phrases like; “you’re a troublemaker”, “you’re a bully “or “you’re a martyr”. Instead, discuss how an individual’s behavior is problematic for the team environment you want to create. You might say, “When you come to me with this information, it sets the team up for failure. A better approach would be to bring these observations to our team meeting for a discussion amongst the group.” Or “when you act confused and say you don’t understand, I feel frustrated because we have previously discussed it. What are you needing from me to better engage and move forward”?   

Minimize competition Let’s face it, some of us are highly motivated by competition. In the workplace, however, setting up competition amongst team members comes with risk. It elevates fear, increases professional envy, and contributes to dysfunctional environments. Be aware of those areas where you might be creating competition, especially in unconscious ways. Perhaps you are rewarding someone when they come to you with gossip by merely listening. Maybe you play favorites with assignments or your time without realizing it. All these leadership behaviors set up competition between team members and can result in dysfunctional behaviors at the individual level. Work to keep things fair, unbiased, and transparent as much as possible. 

Consider job and work design Leaders can also improve dysfunction among their teams by considering structural changes. Evaluate work design, span of control, and other concrete variables that impact dysfunction. For instance, if one employee feels they are assuming more workload than another, resentment and frustration can occur. Strategies such as ensuring equal distribution of work, adequate competence and confidence in those employees performing the work, and creating appropriate challenges in work assignments can all help minimize disruptive behaviors. 

While it is difficult to address all dysfunctional behaviors, these suggestions help provide you with some sense of how to identify and respond to common workplace concerns. As leaders, we want to continue to improve team dynamics, and addressing dysfunctional behaviors is an important place to start.