How to Ditch the Dysfunction & Build a High Performance Team, with Erica Groschler

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Organizational development expert Erica Groschler reveals how you can turn around dysfunctional workplace teams and get team members working in sync:

Organizational development expert Erica Groschler

“They make up stories, protect their turf and, rather than focusing on what needs to get done, they’re too busy doing ‘water cooler’ talk about everyone else.”

That’s veteran organizational development consultant, Incrementa Consulting partner and TPS Consulting president Erica Groschler, outlining behaviours that commonly plague dysfunctional workplace teams.

Erica has been helping organizations improve human performance for over twenty years, working with companies in industries ranging from high technology to metallurgy. She helps identify and turn around internal dysfunction and build teams that work together in symphony.

“When you’ve got a high performing team,” she says, “they’re just getting stuff done. It’s like an orchestra of different instruments all playing together in sync.”

Sounds like a great place for a team to be. But how do you get your  team to that place? How, as a leader, do you figure out what’s not working with your team? How do you address the dysfunction? And how do you make sure new hires will enhance – not destroy – the culture and performance you’ve worked so hard to build?

Erica kindly agreed to a little Q&A …

“If each team member is only focused on their own thing, then they are not going to meet the common purpose.”


Within the context of an organization, what is a team?

A group of two or more people coordinating their activities to accomplish a common purpose or goals in a mutually effective manner.

So it’s a really broad thing?

It is. The way I look at it – and this is because usually when I get brought in as a consultant there’s some degree of dysfunction – you can have a conflict with one other person, so that is a team. You could have an internal conflict within yourself, but that’s a whole other thing [laughs].

Why should leaders invest time and resources into team development?

As business management expert and author Patrick Lencioni states: it’s a strategic choice to focus on building your team. Just think of sports teams: The ones who are successful are tight. Members know each other’s’ individual strengths, they know their plays and they know their competition. They also know what their end goal is. In hockey, for example, the goal is to get the puck in the net, right? If each team member is only focused on their own thing, then they are not going to meet the common purpose. Why should work teams be any different?

How do you know what’s not working on a team?

Just ask anyone who is part of a non-functioning team: you know.

Some of the common signs include:

  1. Low trust. People concealing their weaknesses from each other. They won’t ask each other for help. They will blame, jump to conclusions and hold grudges.
  2. Lack of results. Errors are occurring because everyone’s doing their part solo without the support of their team members.
  3. Artificial harmony. There might not appear, on the surface, to be any conflict; everyone is nodding their heads in meetings and acting like they support each other. But negative chatter is happening at the water cooler in a big way.
  4. People leaving. A very tangible downside for the organization.

“Just think of sports teams: The ones who are successful are tight … why should work teams be any different?”


What are some of the easiest and most impactful fixes that can help turn around dysfunction in a team?

There is no easy fix. But having the leadership committed to doing the “work” is a big start, a leader committed to transparency and openness, willing to demonstrate vulnerability and model appropriate behaviours to set the right tone.

It often has to come from the most senior leaders, which can be difficult for because a lot of people who move up the ladder bring a lot of ego and can be quite defended to protect their image .

Are there particular industries or business functions where this is more common to have tension or trouble with teams?

Certain organizations and areas are known to have particular cultural traits. For example, nursing culture is known to have a passive-aggressive element to it, so that’s going to influence the way they interact with each other. Sales and technology groups working together is another area prone to tension. Where you have differences that are very evident in an organization, you’re going to have potential for conflict and tension.

When you have a team that’s working well together, what should you do to make sure any new members you recruit maintain the performance and dynamic?

So much of it is in the planning and designing in advance. If you are the leader, figure out what you want for your team so it doesn’t just develop haphazardly – which I see so often.

Early on, set up a conversation with the team to figure out:

  1. How do we want to work together?
  2. What do we want to do when we have conflict (because no matter what we’re going to have conflict)?
  3. What are some ground rules for calling each other out on dysfunctional behaviours?
  4. What values are really important to us and what do they mean?

It’s the same thing you do when starting a personal relationship with someone. That’s really what we are talking about: you’re forming relationships with people that you’re going to now work with towards common goals.

Once you have that established and you’re looking to add new people to your team, hiring for fit and onboarding them properly becomes key so you maintain your team culture.

“If you are the leader, figure out what you want for your team so it doesn’t just develop haphazardly.”


What challenges are faced by teams that work together remotely? Any particular things they should be doing to find their groove working together?

It’s all about clarity of purpose and having processes and feedback mechanisms in place. Planning and intention is just as important with a remote team.

When I was back in my technical training days, I worked on one particular project where we had a team of nine people who were all virtual and didn’t even meet each other until ten months in. We were still very successful because so much was done on the front end. We had those principles and values. We actually had a resource book created for onboarding any new person that joined, so they understood our values, our philosophy, how we worked, what our protocols were and what our expectations were. We paired newer team members with more veteran team members in a buddy system. We had no hiccups.

Are there any little tactics a leader can adopt right now, that might help start that journey towards a more high-performing team?

Be clear about your goals. Be clear about what you expect of those who are on your team, in terms of their performance and expected outcomes. Provide specific and regular feedback. Call out behaviour that is not up to snuff. Competition is not going to focus the team on collective results so build in, if possible, shared incentives so everyone works together. Be sure your team members are set up to be successful.

“There is no easy fix. But having leadership committed to the work is a big start …”

Read more of Erica’s insights on team building in her article ‘Building a High Performing Team – Its More Than the Warm and Fuzzies’. You can connect with her through her website, on Twitter (@EricaGroschler) and LinkedIn.

From an interview with Christian De Pape (@ChristianDePape).