Is Your Team Healthy or Dysfunctional?

How can you tell if your team is functioning with high-performing efficiency or bogged down by dysfunction? One way is to examine what I call the emergent leadership roles.

There are four leader roles that begin to evolve early within a team. In just twelve hours of group interaction, these roles will be established. So whether you're on an ad hoc committee or a well established team, you will see these roles come into play:

Task leader: This person sets the agenda, assigns tasks and roles, and allocates resources. On a healthy team, this person participates, engages others, and is open to communicating and listening. On an unhealthy team, this person is a dictator or tyrant.

Emotion or morale leader: This person watches for the morale of the group, gets to know people as individuals, and encourages people to share their thoughts and feelings. On a healthy team, this person is a trusted colleague who is a sounding board for uncovering ideas and feelings. On an unhealthy team, this person gossips, pits people against each other, and creates tension in the team.

Fun leader or scapegoat: This is the person who, on a healthy team, lightens the intensity, encourages playful interactions, ensures that team members take breaks and laugh. On unhealthy teams, this person is blamed or criticized; he or she becomes the scapegoat for people not taking responsibility for their own actions.

Challenger leader: This person challenges the task leader's thinking, agenda, process, and goals. On a healthy team, this person speaks up directly to the task leader and works out the blind spots in the task leader's style and thinking. On an unhealthy team, this person goes underground, sabotaging the task leader's role and power.

Notice that each role has a positive and a negative side depending on whether the group dynamic is healthy or unhealthy. To get a sense of how your team is functioning, identify who has what role and reflect on how he or she operates in that role.

If just one person is demonstrating negative behavior, engage that person in a one-on-one conversation. Share the information about emergent leadership roles and ask that person to decide which characterization applies to her. If the person describes herself as a healthy team member, provide some specific examples to counter her perception. You might say, "Alex, we can agree that you are definitely the task leader for our group, which is a good thing, because we need to stay focused, but I haven't heard you engage team members in conversations about what projects they want to work on."   

It might also be important to ask Alex if she is comfortable with her role as the task leader. Sometimes the team subtly pressures people into roles they don't like. For example, a team might look to the most senior member to challenge the thinking of a new boss. That senior employee might not want to be the challenger leader, but sensing the team's expectation, takes on the role. If someone is cast into a role that doesn't align with his preferred communication style, internal conflict can result and surface as disgruntled behavior.

If many of your team members are demonstrating negative behaviors, it's time to address the dysfunction openly. Share the descriptions of the emergent leadership roles and have a general discussion about the value that each one brings to the group.  Once the task leader understands the function of the challenger leader, he may feel less defensive about criticism. On a healthy team, criticism is a form of collaboration since it aids forward progress in reaching goals and achieving success.

It's important to note that when a person in one of these emergent leadership roles moves off the team, another person moves into that role. A new manager may make the mistake of thinking she can eliminate challenges by getting rid of the challenger leader, but someone else will assume that role. For this reason, a wise task leader will align with and make good use of the feedback that comes from the challenger leader and the other types of leaders on the team.

Recognizing emergent leadership roles within your team or department can be a useful way of zeroing in on behaviors that get in the way of effective collaboration. Making your team members aware of these inevitable roles may also help them understand that when different forms of leadership combine, the team can power through difficult challenges and achieve amazing results.