Taking the Helm of a Sinking Ship: 7 Tips for New Managers of Dysfunctional Teams

dysfunctional team

Many dysfunctional organizations bring in new executives hoping a fresh perspective can help right the ship, but too often those newcomers get absorbed by the dysfunction instead of improving it. When you’re the new executive in charge of an ill-functioning group, you need to take a proactive approach to diagnosing and healing those deep-rooted issues. 

Brett joined a 75-person organization as CEO. The company was small; the politics were significant, and the culture toxic. Trust and motivation were depleted and blame rampant. Employees were confused about strategy and complained that lobbying trumped logic. Siloes formed quickly and constituents vied for resources at the expense of others. Fear of job loss was widespread due to the firm’s poor performance. Customer complaints waxed, while the company’s market position waned.

The board was concerned. Brett had a fresh start but was guaranteed a short shelf life if he couldn’t get this organization under control quickly. Six months after taking the helm, here are seven strategies Brett has deployed to right the ship.

1. Listen for losses, not just wishes.

During an initial listening tour, Brett heard many aspirations from each department. While all desired future improvement, there was a singular reason for the dysfunction: disrupting the status quo would incur loss. Concerns included lost headcount from increased automation, lost relevance as new skills supplanted current ones, lost power from shuffling the organizational structure. Harvard professors Marty Linsky and Ron Heifetz, in their work on adaptive leadership, say, people don’t resist change, they resist loss. By listening for what may be lost if we successfully achieve our goals, we unearth a powerful tie to the status quo that is not susceptible to logic. When we can empathize with these often un(der)stated dynamics, we can address and mitigate these significant barriers.

2. Identify what’s working well, not just what’s wrong.

It’s easy to get sucked into a noisy drama when you first take charge of a team jiving to the jitters. Tune in to the lower amplitude vibrations of healthy functioning. Usually even in the sickest places, there are pockets of salubrity, people functioning amid disruption. You might be able to amplify a signal worth echoing throughout the organization.

3. Shock the system, not just individuals.

Brett’s employees consistently blamed two people. The underlying cause is rarely that simple. Even when an organization replaces a problem employee(s) the problem often resurfaces. Brett investigated the systemic dynamics and realized that the two problem personnel were outspoken, but others with self-serving agendas silently backed them and supplied ammunition for high-conflict meetings. Everyone became accountable for goals geared toward creating a healthier organization. If people complained about someone else, he brought both parties into the room at once. If someone successfully implemented a way to improve team dynamics or meetings, their efforts were recognized. New executives have fresh eyes and the benefit of objective vision before they form strong alliances or develop detractors. Zoom out to identify interactions, intersectionality, and intentions across the system rather than focusing on any one individual.

4. Provide clarity, not platitudes.

Confusion about the strategy led people to indulge in wishful – and harmful – thinking, “If I repeat my idea loudly, it will become the plan;” divisive behaviors, “I need to horde resources even at the cost of other departments in case we are asked to do more;” and wasted effort, “Let me send out three trial balloons because I don’t know which path we will ultimately select.” One of Brett’s earliest priorities was to enlist the help of consultants and key stakeholders to clarify the strategy. Instead of using management-speak—synergies, teamwork, and a true north–use plain English and clearly state where you’re headed and where you are not.

5. Delegate responsibility to everyone, not just yourself.

With pressure from the board, customers, and the market, Brett could have been tempted to take sole responsibility for addressing the company’s woes. Instead, he bluntly laid out the list of issues and invited the team to answer key questions: “What would it take for us to work together and address these issues?” “What would get in the way?” “What would we do next if these barriers didn’t exist When we complain about the traffic, we rarely consider that we are the traffic. By distributing responsibility for solving problems, executives improve the odds of co-producing solutions to the issues the team has co-architected.

6. Create the container, not the content.

Brett could tackle hundreds of fissures in the company. But his job was to exemplify enough truth telling in an environment safe enough for others to speak up and own the issues. Brett created a container—predictable structure and enforced meeting norms—for productive conversations but didn’t fill the silence or over-participate in generating content. Brett’s directs felt safe to raise old resentments and address sensitive feelings. Problems exposed almost solved themselves, without much intervention from Brett.

7. Check in frequently, not just when there are problems.

The team was encouraged by sunlight being shone on big issues. They took initial steps forward. It was crucial to not get overly excited and lose sight of the discipline and sustained effort it takes to excise dysfunctional behavior. Having a process for frequent check ins provides an escape valve before pressure builds. Less entrenched issues are more easily remedied.

As a new executive, it’s natural and wise to build relationships but it’s counterproductive to do whatever is necessary to be liked. Being liked is useless if we’re fostering a festering culture. Listen and give people the benefit of the doubt, while also providing clear boundaries and tough consequences. Pruning can be painful, but it’s also essential to healthy growth.

About the Author

Sabina Nawaz is a global CEO coach, leadership keynote speaker, and writer. She advises C-level executives in Fortune 500 corporations, government agencies, non-profits, and academia. Sabina has spoken at hundreds of seminars, events, and conferences including TEDx and has written for Harvard Business Review, Forbes, Inc, and Thrive Global. Follow her on Twitter or Instagram. Subscribe here to receive her new articles on leadership.