Working with Dysfunctional Teams: Advice and Solutions for the Project Manager

Working with Dysfunctional Teams: Advice and Solutions for the Project Manager
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Project teams are a growing segment of high matrix organizations. Working together for a designated period of time, they utilize diverse skills and experiences while working towards achieving departmental or organizational goals. As team characteristics, such as size and roles can vary, members are required to participate one hundred percent in group projects throughout the project lifecycle. By employing the right combination of skills, abilities, personalities and commitment, the team has a solid chance of gaining success on both individual and group levels. But what about when the team doesn’t work so seamlessly together?

Characteristics and Solutions of Dysfunctional Teams

Dysfunctional Team

Working with dysfunctional project teams can cause a loss in project success. “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team,” by Patrick Lencioni discusses several factors involved in the breakdown of team projects. Large in scope and encompassing several factors, he describes many elements listed below:

  • Lack of Commitment: team members who are not committed to the project or the company are less likely to contribute causing low morale, missed deadlines and lack of trust among members. Tackle this problem in a dysfunctional team by picking members who are already invested in the project and want to make sound contributions.

Lack of Trust: trust is an important factor within any team. Members must be able to rely on one another to manage roles and responsibilities, project deliverables and support team members. Manage lack of trust by creating a forum for open communication. Speaking freely and professionally to team members allows for sharing of ideas and issues, leaving little room for any misunderstanding.

Unproven Strategies for Success: team members don’t believe in the processes, technology or strategies being used. To counteract this, present the team with synopsis from previous projects that were successful for the organization. Management is happy to share this information if it will lead to the same outcome.

Micromanagement: team members are micro-managed, therefore not able to create solutions to problems on their own. Team leaders are responsible for trusting team members. Keeping an open door policy and tracking goals daily are great ways to stave off micromanagement.

Lack of Interest: team members know that they will not be affected by the positive or negative project outcome. Interest can be created by reiterating how the project affects the job of each team member and the goals of the organization overall.

Lack of Accountability: team members do not accept constructive criticism, recognize or take responsibility for mistakes that are blamed on colleagues or the project manager. Setting responsibilities along with daily and weekly goals creates accountability. As goals are met, confidence increases and everyone wants to be accountable for success.

Avoiding Conflict: team members who avoid conflicts are completely de-motivated, do not give their best effort or communicate with team members. Communicating in team environments solves many problems including conflict avoidance. To keep animosities from building employ open sessions for discussion and if serious communication issues arise, mediation is quick and effective.

By addresses each of these elements, team leaders have the opportunity to identity strengths and weaknesses in team members, readjust team dynamics and deter breakdowns as they occur.

Advice for Team Strategies


In order to make changes to a team that is lacking the necessary mind-set for success, the first step is to assess the current state of the project. The second step is to reassess project time lines and schedules before finally addressing team dynamics. The following strategies can make a remarkable difference:

Provide Clear Leadership: team leaders are integral for project success. Specific skills can be matched to goals and expectations at different phases of the project.

Set Clear Goals and Expectations: setting realistic goals and expectations are important to keep the project on track. At the same time, team members gain a sense of accomplishment as goals are met and acknowledged.

Provide Team Building Activities: warm-ups or ice-breakers followed by fun games, i.e. name games, party games or role playing activities provided in a relaxed setting help team members get to know one another quickly and easily.

Manage Project Timelines: missed deadlines can throw a project off track in addition to creating stress and low morale. By utilizing strong leadership, accountability and goal setting, managing project timelines is made simple and successful.

Communicate Effectively: discussing team issues as they arise, while giving members a supportive environment for communication, can make all the difference in dysfunctional teams.

Acknowledge Contributions: positive reinforcement is a key to continued positive results. Acknowledging the contributions of team members is important to morale and increases open communication. Teams that employ these strategies meet goals and expectations, often on or before deadlines.

Advice for Team Assessments

Identify Non-Performers: pay attention to those who may not be ‘pulling their weight’ and evaluate the progress and contributions they are making with the team. If need be, schedule a face-to-face meeting with individual team members to discuss those who are struggling with project work.

Conduct Performance Reviews: performance reviews are a great way to assess the contributions, morale and overall direction of the project. As some projects are larger in scope then others, by measuring performance, the overall project stays on track and each member has a thorough understanding of how their contributions are affecting the team.

Measure Team Progress: there are lots of tools available to measure where your team is at today and where it needs to be tweaked. It’s a good idea to get in the habit of benchmarking the team’s performance relative to others on an annual basis by reviewing team strengths and weaknesses.

Report Team Success: teams that are able to overcome dysfunction and create successful outcomes have the distinct opportunity to share that success on a departmental and organizational level. Sharing success is a motivator from the top down within the company and exemplifies business characteristics that company partners, competitors and investors notice for future collaborations.


  • Barna, George. The Power of Team Leadership: Achieving Success Through Shared Responsibility WaterBrook Press. October 16, 2001
  • Lewis, James P. The Project Manager’s Desk Reference: A Comprehensive Guide to Project Planning, Scheduling, Evaluation, and Systems. 2000, p.185
  • Image credits: Dysfunctional Teammorguefile/mconnors, Working Teammorguefile/mconnors
  • Lencioni, Patrick. The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable. Jossey-Bass; First Edition. April 11, 2002