Addressing Team Dysfunction During Meetings

Addressing Team Dysfunction During Meetings

All teams have the potential to be dysfunctional: incapable of achieving goals. This is because each person is different, and each team has their own unique history. A team leader must know how to recognize signs of team dysfunction, and be skilled to address them.

Related: Making the Most of Team Meetings

Using Ground Rules to Prevent Dysfunction

One of the best ways a team leader can anticipate problems in a team discussion is to set ground rules. Ground rules orient participants with what is expected from them. Moreover, they set boundaries of acceptable and unacceptable behavior during the discussion. For best results, ground rules must be set in a consultative fashion, with the rules, and sometimes the consequences of violation of rules, negotiated among the members of the team and agreed upon by consensus.

When setting ground rules, it is important to both verify if the rules are understood, and if they are acceptable. Make sure too that a documentation of the ground rules is available for everyone, either as a hand-out or posted in a flipchart paper for everyone to see.

Ground rules in a team meeting can relate to:

  • How to make the most of the meeting. For example: practice timely attendance, participate fully.
  • How to make a contribution to the discussion. For example: do the members raise their hands and ask the facilitator for permission to speak; use I-messages.
  • How members should treat other members. For example: “don’t interrupt whoever is speaking, listen actively to whoever has the floor, accept that everyone has a right to their own opinion, no swearing or any aggressive behavior.
  • Issues relating to confidentiality. Example: all matters discussed in the team shall remain within the team. This is also the moment for the facilitator to reveal if the minutes of the meeting will remain solely for his or her reference, or will it be given to an authority in the organization.
  • How violations of ground rules would be addressed. Example: the use of graduated interventions from warning to expulsion from the team.

Restating and Reframing Issues

The way an issue or problem is phrased can influence team members’ attitudes towards it. After all, different words have different meanings and connotations.  A simple example is the difference between the words “problem” and “challenge” in reference to a situation, or “victim” and “survivor” in reference to a person.

Restatement is similar to paraphrasing; it is changing the wording of an issue, but the main idea is the same. For example: simply changing “this suggestion seems to have made some members of the group angry”, to “there seems to be a strong concerns about the suggestion” can lessen the antagonistic nature of the statement.

Reframing is similar to restatement, except reframing goes deeper. In reframing, a team leader changes the way a problem is conceptualized in order to facilitate a consensus or support a conflict resolution.  In some cases, the problem is reframed in order to support the position of two parties in contention. The meaning may or may not change, but the spirit of the statement remains the same. For example, instead of saying “we’re here to talk about how to approach salary cuts,” a team leader can say “we’re here to talk about how the company can provide employee security despite limited funds.”

In team facilitation, simply restating or reframing an issue can lessen the adversarial nature of a position, or invite a fresh way of looking at things. When the issue is phrased in neutral or workable terms, it becomes conducive to a reasonable discussion.

How can a facilitator successfully re-state or reframe an issue? The main skill necessary for these processes is active listening. An effective facilitator must be sensitive to what each party needs and be able to incorporate these interests when phrasing an issue. Having an appreciation of the language of the team, and their unique perspective, are also important in this process.

Some of the ways of restating and reframing includes:

  • Changing “hot buttons” or value-laden words into neutral ones.
  • Reminding the team of larger goals/ smaller goals the entire team is working on.
  • Changing a problem into workable terms.
  • Approaching an issue from another perspective.

Getting People Back on Track

A team discussion can go off-topic for many reasons. Sometimes, the purpose of the meeting wasn’t really clear. In other times, the discussion naturally led to an interesting issue not part of the agenda. And in other times, there are individuals who initiate and maintain off-topic discussions.

Regardless of the reason, the following are ways to get a discussion back on track:

  • Review the agenda. A facilitator can create check points in the agenda and constantly refer to it as the discussion progresses. For example: “Let’s take a moment to take a process check. Are we still following our agreed upon agenda?”
  • Reflect to the team what is happening, and reintroduce the correct topic. Example: “I appreciate the participation and enthusiasm. But it seems that we have gone off the agreed upon agenda. I believe the topic under discussion is…”
  • Offer to put the off-topic on a “parking lot” for possible later discussion. For example: “You raised a good point Mary. Maybe we can look at that later it today, or set a separate meeting for it.”
  • Ask the team if they are finding the discussion helpful to the goal. This intervention is recommended for unstructured meetings, where a foray into an off-topic is not necessarily a negative thing. For example: “I noticed that there has been a long debate in the team about this idea. Is this discussion helpful for everyone?”
  • Ignore the off-topic discussion and reintroduce the correct topic. If you feel that acknowledging a topic detour will just result in more dysfunction (e.g. it will provoke a long, defensive response), then it may be best to just ignore it. Instead, summarize the last thing that was said related to the topic, and ask a question that continues from it. For example: “If I may get back to what Louis was saying earlier. He said….Does anyone agree with his observation?”


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