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Avoiding Team Dysfunction: The Keys to Building and Maintaining a Healthy, Well-Functioning Team

Avoiding Team Dysfunction:  The Keys to Building and Maintaining a Healthy, Well-Functioning Team

√   Unproductive meetings.

√   Back-channeled communication and gossip.

√   Low Trust.

√   Missed deadlines.

Sounds terrible, doesn’t it?  And if you have been on a dysfunctional or low-performing team, you know how frustrating it can be.

I’ve spent 28 years coaching leaders and teams, so it feels appropriate for me to deviate from my usual blogging topics, which focus on individual self-improvement, to look closely at how our choices as individuals help to create a healthy or unhealthy group dynamic and over time, can make or break a team’s ability to perform.

First, let’s set the stages each team goes through from the moment they come together with a common goal. In the 1960s, psychologist Bruce Tuckman introduced what was then a groundbreaking theory for understanding group dynamics.  This is referred to as Tuckman’s Group Dynamics Model, also known by many as Forming, Storming, Norming & Performing.  By recognizing and intentionally navigating the stages, team leaders and their team members can create a high-functioning team with effective communication, collaboration, and positive-trending performance. However, the reality is that many leaders do not understand the foundational elements needed for healthy, sustainable, high-performing teams.  They think they do, but then the leader and team members get swept up in what they have to do and rarely take the time needed to intentionally form and move through the stages, resulting in misalignment, misunderstanding, and many of the characteristics that keep productivity and trust low.


Let’s look at healthy vs. unhealthy team development in each of the stages:

Stage 1: Forming 

During this initial stage, group members get to know one another. This stage is characterized by excitement and uncertainty as individuals navigate their new relationships. They may be polite and reserved.  Others may be outgoing and lean in. 


Forming is helpful when it is safe for people to get to know each other without wonky dynamics, drama, or conversations that require trust before it even exists.  Forming is successful when it allows the individuals to engage at a pace that feels natural.  Some people like small talk and want to stay in that level of interaction for longer than others (i.e., talking about the weather, sports, news that is neutral or non-political, etc.) Forming can be accelerated by using assessment tools and creating time for the team to safely share stories about themselves and discuss their style openly.  It is also a best practice to charter a team as soon as possible, making explicit the purpose of the team, the primary deliverables, and clarifying roles.


Unintentional, unplanned, or “messy” Forming will set a team up for downstream bad behavior, conflict, and misunderstanding.  Many leaders seem to miss this step, assuming the team will “get to know each other” organically while they start work.  It is also all too common for roles to be unclear or have “blurred lines,” creating early concerns about who will have authority over resources and decisions. These are mistakes.  Teams that are not given time to “form” safely will often experience conflict too quickly, creating lasting damage that will show up later as delays, confusion, and turf wars.


Stage 2: Storming

As time progresses, the team members will enter the Storming stage. This can be between a few team members, in a subgroup, or it can include the entire team. No matter the formation, disagreement will inevitably arise as group members assert their opinions, compare information and data, and appropriately strive to achieve competing priorities, etc.  This stage can be challenging as individuals grapple with differing perspectives and have a need to “confront” or highlight an area of disagreement. However, navigating through this stage in healthy ways is crucial for the group's growth and development.  How we storm determines how we norm. Said in another way, our experiences in disagreement usually predict how we will habitually interact in the future. 


Healthy conflict is an essential ingredient in a well-functioning, dynamic team. It involves a blend of transparency and respect for oneself and others, underpinned by the practice of active listening and a genuine curiosity about different perspectives and information.

When Storming is healthy, team members manage their emotions, engage in direct and authentic communication, and prioritize the intention of understanding over the desire to win an argument.

Consider a scenario where team members are debating the best path forward on a project. In a healthy team conflict, each member is encouraged to voice their opinion, knowing their thoughts are valued. They listen intently, not just hearing but processing what's being said, and ask questions that probe deeper into the rationale behind disparate viewpoints. Instead of a clash of egos, it becomes a productive and illuminating exchange where insights are shared, and the collective intelligence of the team grows. The goal is never to perpetuate drama but to identify the most effective solutions and achieve resolution.

For example, when disparities in workload become a point of tension, a team that is adept at handling constructive conflict will approach the issue with empathy and logic. Every team member's workload and contributions are assessed openly, paving the way for adjustments that are both equitable and conducive to the team's success.

Thus, the storm does not fracture teams but rather fortifies them, leveraging diverse perspectives to forge innovative pathways and resilient strategies. Each member comes away from such engagements feeling heard, understood, and part of a collective effort to achieve shared goals.


When team members can or will not freely express their ideas, concerns, and feedback without fear of retribution or dismissal, misunderstandings are bound to become commonplace. This brews an environment where trust is eroded, and without trust, the foundation of teamwork crumbles. Miscommunication becomes the norm, and assumptions take the place of facts, leading to escalating tension. The longer a group lives with low trust, the more finger-pointing and blame take precedence over constructive problem-solving, eroding the team's ability to overcome challenges together.

Stage 3 Norming

It is critical to point out that the third stage, Norming, starts during Storming.  They are not sequenced with a clean transition where one stage starts and the other ends.  Because we as humans are “self-protective animals” with built-in threat detection, any sign of disagreement that might escalate to full-blown conflict, how we storm with the people around us matters. Any experience with another person/people that is unpleasant or uncomfortable will generate a belief about how you want to interact with that person in the future. For example, you might think: “I don’t want to ever be yelled at like that again.  I am going to avoid making that guy mad at all costs.” ) Because this is how we operate, Storming is where the group begins to establish norms, rules, and relationships.


When the group is healthy and high-functioning, the group has agreed upon norms, rules of engagement, and high-trust relationships. Members resolve conflicts, build trust, and collaborate effectively, and with intention.  For the high-functioning team, this stage is accepted as ongoing because they are dedicated to continuous improvement.  With sustained high performance as a shared goal, this stage is marked by a sense of unity and shared purpose as the group works towards common goals, using their personal growth and the team’s ongoing development as the foundation for being great at what they do and the impact they have on their industry and the greater good.


When a team is unintentional about norming, the group will most likely abide by unwritten rules that serve the boss or the strongest personality on the team, and/or they will fall prey to the drama of the moment. In other words, because the team isn’t committed to agreements that “normalize” effective and productive behaviors, bad and ineffective behaviors run the day.  This cannot be overcome until the leader and the team stop settling for chaos, strife, and low performance as a way of operating.


Stage 4: Performing

At some point, the group will produce work deliverables.  When it takes on regularity, it is called the Performing stage.  It can be witnessed as the group producing work together and achieving outcomes.  


In healthy environments, the team members are highly motivated, productive, and efficient in achieving their objectives. Communication is clear, decision-making is streamlined, and creativity thrives. The group operates as a well-oiled machine, successfully executing tasks and projects.


Teams that are unhealthy usually do not produce predictable outcomes.  They are unsure about how to navigate complicated situations and can miss deadlines.  They are unaligned and sometimes confused about how to prioritize. They will exhaust themselves with false urgency to please their boss or a customer while allowing things that require real urgency to languish. They harbor resentments and talk about each other, instead of to each other.  So, while the performance might be acceptable on some level, it is not driven by agreements and behaviors that create excellence.


Leaders who invest time in understanding these stages and guide their teams through them are making an invaluable investment in their shared success. The shift from merely doing to being intentional can be the difference between a group that simply functions and one that soars.

But remember, knowledge is only powerful when put into action. Prioritize team dynamics and witness the transformation in productivity and trust within your organization. The future of effective team leadership doesn't just depend on tasks and goals but on the nurturing and understanding of the team's internal processes.

If you're ready to unlock the full potential of your team, don't miss out on my Deep Work Fast session, this Tuesday at 3:00 PM PT, streaming on LinkedIn and Facebook. In 20 minutes or less, I'll equip you with actionable tools and insights to enhance your professional and personal lives. Together, we'll explore the intricacies of team dynamics and much more.

Join me, and let's make effective teamwork not just an aspiration but a reality. Let's Go!


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