Career SkillsCogent Communicator

Overcoming Team Dysfunction

By Susan de la Vergne

I once worked on a large IT project with a team that didn’t get along well. There was a lot of infighting and ego clashing. Cliques, secrets and suspicions were the norm, and the project manager knew it.

So she took everyone go-karting.

It was a nice break. It was fun to see people laughing together. These were people who argued vigorously about project requirements one minute and suspected each other’s motives the next. But there we were go-karting and getting a kick out of it. Back at the office, we re-lived the moment Tom ran Benny into the tire bank, and we marveled that Diana-a very fast talker-could be such slow driver.

But days later, the infighting resumed. The go-karting adventure hadn’t gotten at the source of the problem.

Swatting at Symptoms

You can’t fix anything if you don’t get at root cause. Whether they’re software problems, physical ailments or team dysfunction, if you just swat at symptoms, the problem comes back. That’s what happened to the project team: the go-karting cheered everyone up, but we were nowhere near root cause.


A lot of conventional approaches to “team-building” diddle around with symptoms. They focus on whether people have a sense of belonging, whether they feel empowered, and whether they understand their roles. Of course, we want team members to feel committed to the project. We want people to communicate respectfully, and we want leadership to set clear expectations. But those are symptoms of the problem. Disrespectful communication, feeling detached from the mission, and being confused about roles are all good things to fix, but they won’t get at what’s really wrong.

Let’s take a closer look at some of the things we observe going wrong on teams.

Arguments, maybe even heated exchanges. One side doesn’t listen to the other, and there’s no productive outcome.

Conflict avoidance, an unwillingness to bring up a controversial subject, or outright evasion of a topic.

Criticism of others, sometimes overtly but often a persistent hum, background conversations, or a tacit understanding that some people don’t get it and can be overlooked.

Suspecting others’ motives, that they’re hoarding information and guarding secrets, or harboring resentment that some people have access to confidential information.


Ducking individual accountability-some people not holding up their end, not completing work on time, not reporting progress accurately (or at all), not admitting they can’t do it or can’t get to it because they’re overwhelmed with too much to do.

Root Cause

There’s one driver behind these symptoms. It’s one very normal thought that all of us have most of the time. It’s this normal thought (not our best selves, but still very normal) that drives dysfunction on teams (and does other damaging things to work relationships). It is this: We are concerned for our own reputation.

We argue a point because we want to be victorious, to be right, to be the person who has the right answer. That serves our reputation.

We avoid conflict because we’re worried that, after the conflict, we’ll be the person who’ll be seen as the less powerful, less effective person, the one whose reputation will have suffered.

We criticize others (overtly or covertly)-not because it benefits them-but because it demonstrates our expertise, which serves our reputation. Indirectly, we may also criticize others to shore up our own confidence, boosting our reputation in our own eyes.

No criticism intended. This is completely normal in most of our work cultures. We’re very used to operating this way. We want to be right, to be heard, and to be recognized. We want others to think highly of us. We want interesting work-which we’ll get if others think highly of us. We want job security-which we’ll have if others think highly of us. We want to win arguments, get promoted and be respected-all of which will be ours, if others think highly of us.

Reputation. It’s HUGE.

What If Instead

We seldom concern ourselves over someone else’s reputation, just our own. How often do we think about the professional welfare of our co-workers? Rarely. How often do we put the professional welfare of our co-workers ahead of our own? Perhaps never.

Here’s what it would look like if we did. We’d be driving to work in the morning thinking, I hope Jackie is successful today. I hope people listen to her and really appreciate her. In fact, I sincerely hope Jackie has a great day.

Now I might say that if Jackie’s success were to benefit me in some way-like if she’s promoting an idea I agree with-because that validates my reputation. But just to wish Jackie success, sincerely, with no connection to how it affects me? That’s pretty unusual.

Here’s what else it might look like if I put the professional welfare of someone else ahead of my own. Say that my colleague and I both applied for a job, a promotion, within the company. My colleague got it. Am I pleased for him? Not especially. I’m more concerned that everyone who knows I applied and didn’t get it will think less of me, or that I should think less of myself.

That happened to me once on an internal promotion-I applied, I made the shortlist, I knew the hiring executive, I sailed through the interview (I thought), and I was pretty sure I had it. But instead of me, they hired Sam.

Seriously? I thought. Sam? And for some time thereafter, whenever I saw Sam, I thought about how I had lost the job to him, how I’d have been better at it, and what were they thinking?? I enjoyed it when people said to me, “How could they have hired Sam instead of you?” I was being protective of my reputation, and it had been tarnished. (True story. I regret it now.)

What if we managed to care more about “the other guy” and worry less about our own reputation? What would that look like?

For starters, in the story above, I would have been genuinely happy for Sam. Considering that we still had to work together sometimes, my letting go of concern for myself would have made it easier to work with him-easier for both of us. And my concern about my reputation in that whole scenario did nothing to (1) improve my performance on the job, (2) improve my state of mind, or (3) fuel my enthusiasm for the work the company was doing. Nothing positive came out of my self-protective reaction when Sam got the job.

What if team members cared more about their co-workers’ reputations than their own? I realize this is a stretch, because it’s so not what we do now. But if we did. We would make sure our co-workers were heard. We would be able to offer correction and not have it be interpreted as criticism. There would be no reason to suspect others’ motives because their motives would be to make sure their colleagues did well, received recognition and flourished.

Some might argue that “concern for reputation” is a driver of good work performance-that is, some people try to do well so they’ll be regarded positively. But real commitment to outstanding performance runs far deeper. People do quality work because they’re committed to quality. There’s no danger that abandoning concern for reputation will compromise quality.

It’s a paradigm shift, for sure. But if we were to make that shift, if we were to let go of concern for our own reputation, if we were even able to simply value our co-workers’ reputations as much as our own, team dynamics would change dramatically for the better. We might even have to drop the phrase “team dysfunction” altogether once and for all.

Susan de la Vergne is a mindfulness and communication instructor who worked in software development and Information Technology leadership for 20+ years. She’s currently leading twice-weekly online “Mindfulness Minutes” (no charge) to help busy professionals start their day with a balanced, positive mind 

Susan de la Vergne

Susan de la Vergne is a writer and communication instructor who worked in software development and Information Technology leadership for a very long time. Susan is the author of Engineers on Stage: Presentation Skills for Technical Professionals.

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