How to Heal a Dysfunctional Leadership Team
Article written by CampusWorks based on a CEO Connections conversation moderated by Dr. Tuesday Stanley, president of Westmoreland County Community College
Unless you’re just beginning your career, chances are you’ve encountered a dysfunctional team or two across the organizations you’ve worked at. When I became president of Westmoreland County Community College in 2014, I made a personal commitment to foster a trusting, healthy leadership team that would lift each other up and work together towards the College’s mission.
As new leaders quickly find out, you have little control over the team you inherit. If you’re lucky, your leadership team will operate like a well-oiled machine. But often, new leaders encounter some level of dysfunction that must be addressed.
Do you have a dysfunctional team?
According to Patrick Lencioni, New York Times best-selling author of The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, dysfunctional teams are characterized by five traits: an absence of trust, a fear of conflict, a lack of commitment, an avoidance of accountability, and inattention to results. These dynamics can be detrimental to any organization because they breed competition, infighting, and gossip, which hijack people’s time and energy and stifle productivity.
If your leadership team is experiencing any (or all) of these symptoms, it’s up to you, the leader, to unearth the root cause and address it. Your students—and your employees—are counting on it.
Drive out dysfunction.
I recently facilitated a CEO Connections conversation on this topic for higher education leaders. In this article, I’m sharing five actionable ideas that surfaced during our discussion that you can employ to heal dysfunctional dynamics and transform your team.
1. Hire better.
While we can’t control who we inherit, we can control who we hire. At an educational session I once attended, the speaker asked us to raise our hands if we have integrity. Everybody raised their hands. Then, he asked us to raise our hands if we’ve only worked for people who have integrity. Not a single hand went up.
His point was that people don’t judge leaders by their intent; they judge leaders by how they behave.
This exercise inspired me to change how we assess the people we hire. Rather than listing the qualities I want in my leadership team or asking candidates to tell me about their strengths and weaknesses, I’ve started using situational interview questions that describe a scenario and ask the candidate to tell me how they would respond. This technique helps me assess each candidate’s integrity, ethics, problem-solving skills, and ability to learn from their errors to determine if they are a good fit for our culture.
Here are examples of the types of questions I now ask:
- What would you do if you made a mistake that no one else noticed?
- What would you do if you were asked to perform a task you’ve never done before?
- Tell me about a time when you failed. How did you deal with this experience?
2. Make everyone accountable for the team’s success.
To prevent infighting and competition, which underlies most dysfunction, I’ve added a section to my Cabinet members’ annual performance review that highlights what they did to make somebody else on the team successful. They must be able to describe efforts that supported people outside their department and contributed to other cabinet members’ goals.
Recently, our vice president of enrollment was struggling to process a backlog of transcript evaluations before the new semester because a key staff member was out on long-term medical leave. The vice president of academics suggested asking deans and faculty for help since they know the programs so well. So many people volunteered, we got caught up in a week.
Motivating your team members to help each other not only creates a supportive culture, but it also broadens their perspective, enabling them to see beyond their own roles and responsibilities and recognize the interconnected nature of our organization.
3. Celebrate teamwork.
Recognition is a powerful form of positive reinforcement that not only strengthens a culture but also encourages more people to go out of their way to help each other.
One of the ways I recognize good behavior is by dedicating time at the beginning of our cabinet meetings to share stories about how they contributed to somebody else’s success. This allows individuals to be recognized for their efforts while setting a collaborative tone for the meeting.
Another idea that surfaced during our CEO Connections conversation was the concept of hosting a “bragging buffet” to give employees a public platform to talk about an accomplishment and recognize their teammates’ contributions. This is a fun way to recognize progress while highlighting that the credit is shared.
4. Huddle up.
Silos are another dysfunctional force that can impede a leadership team’s effectiveness. To prevent them from limiting cross-functional work, we hold regular huddles.
The huddle concept was inspired by The 4 Disciplines of Execution by Chris McChesney, Sean Covey, and Jim Huling. A huddle can be a short, 15-minute gathering where all team members remain standing. Our huddles are action oriented. Nothing gets tabled or delegated. If we see any roadblocks or choke points, we fix it in the moment. No one leaves until we have a solution.
Twice a week, our vice president for enrollment services leads recruitment and retention huddles to discuss issues related to student success and retention. I join them once a week, along with my provost. They are an effective way to brief the team, review key performance indicators, raise issues, and align tasks and projects so we’re all on the same page.
5. Be the change.
Now, more than ever, our institutions require courageous leadership. This means addressing dysfunction directly, through coaching, mentoring, and candid conversations. Ensure every employee knows how they contribute to student success—from the professors in your classrooms to the people who maintain the grounds. And lead by example to model what the organization will and won’t tolerate.
Sometimes, despite your best efforts, dysfunctional behavior cannot be corrected and the only way to heal the team is to part ways with toxic employees.
While letting someone go is never fun, having an honest conversation about culture fit can be a mutually beneficial experience for the leader and the employee. Especially when you approach these difficult conversations with empathy and try to help the employee identify what they really want. Most people don’t take a job intending to become a toxic employee, and they usually don’t get to that state on their own. As leaders, we can help guide them to something else that might be a better match for their talents.
Getting back to functional.
The Great Resignation has left many leaders operating with a skeleton crew. People at every level are tired, burned out, and stressed. If you’re not careful, these conditions can incubate dysfunctional behavior. And with so many competing priorities, leaders can be tempted to let bad behavior slide until a better time.
I think the time to act is now. The talent shortage is a golden opportunity to define the culture you want to create and build your leadership team with the right people who can help you realize your vision. It’s also an opportune time to discover and tap into hidden talents within your existing team and use these ideas to foster trust, collaboration, and accountability.
As you consider how to strengthen your leadership team’s dynamics, I’ll leave you with this parting thought from Patrick Lencioni, “Not finance. Not strategy. Not technology. It is teamwork that remains the ultimate competitive advantage, both because it so powerful and so rare.”
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About the Facilitator
Tuesday Stanley, Ed.D.
President, Westmoreland County Community College
Dr. Tuesday Stanley has served as the seventh president—and first female president—of Westmoreland County Community College (WCCC) in Youngwood, Pennsylvania since 2014. Under her leadership, WCCC has expanded its physical and digital footprint to provide a full spectrum of services to residents of Westmoreland, Indiana, and Fayette counties. This article was adapted from a CEO Connections conversation Dr. Stanley facilitated with higher education leaders across the nation.