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An Easy Way to Discuss Dysfunctional Behavior at Work

by | Nov 3, 2014 | By Karin Hurt, Communication |

Whether your team is just starting up, or has the battle scars of a team fighting for results, they need to find a way to talk about the behaviors getting in their way. Great leaders look for ways to make this conversation easier.

Dysfunctional behavior can be hard to talk about because it feels so personal.  Many times people wait to have important difficult conversations until the issue has escalated. It’s harder then.

A Functional Conversation on Dysfunction

“Human behavior flows from three main sources: desire, emotion, and knowledge.” Plato

I like to use this exercise early in a team’s formation to get folks talking about common experiences and appropriate remedies as early in the game as possible. This conversation also provides a safer feeling infrastructure to surface important dynamics a mature team needs to share without direct confrontation.

Step 1:

Give every team member 6-7 Post-it notes. Ask them to identify the behaviors that (in their experience) most get in the way of results or team progress. It’s important to tee-up that this is based on a lifetime of experience, not just this team. Then ask them to write one behavior on each Post-it.

Step 2:

As team members are ready, have them bring their Post-it notes to a wall or white board and begin to self-organize them into clusters. Enjoy the banter as the clusters form.

Step 3:

Circle the biggest dysfunctions.

My experience shows they will read something like this (I’d love for you to share your findings):

  1. Arrogance (by a landslide)
  2. Unmotivated (and/or lazy)
  3. Self-serving motives and actions
  4. Lack of communication
  5. Disrespect
  6. Stubborness
  7. Drama
  8. Anger-bullying
  9. Passive-Aggressive

Step 4:

Take the top few categories and invite the team to share what they would do when encountered with such scenarios. Encourage them to share stories of best practices they’ve used in the past.

Step 5:

Develop a set of standards or team norms for how such issues would be addressed if they were to occur on this team. Encourage the sharing of stories from best experiences and overcoming dysfunctional behavior.

It’s very important for teams to talk about their own dysfunction. But early in the game, it may be easier to talk about standards and stories to establish a framework for the future.

Want more human-centered leaders in the workplace? Share this today!

Want more human-centered leaders in the workplace? Share this today?


  1. Terri Klass

    Love the exercise Karin and can’t wait to try it! Also great image!

    I especially love the idea of focusing on the behaviors rather than on the people, which sometimes can get rather nasty. In order for this exercise to really work well, a team leader needs to feel comfortable with their team members and there needs to be a decent level of trust.

    Thanks for sharing Karin!

    • Karin Hurt

      Terri, Thank you. I so agree that trust is key, and also it needs to feel like you are really talking about behaviors and not pretending to talk about behaviors and really talking about specific people.

  2. LaRae Quy

    Love this exercise, Karin!

    I have found that arrogance is a recurring occurrence for many, but I’ve also found that the deeper I dig that lack of confidence is what is truly at the core of many behaviors.

    Lack of confidence coupled with self-limiting beliefs can be masked by many of the behaviors that are described above…

    • Karin Hurt

      LaRae, I so agree with you about that. Lack of confidence surfaces in so many ugly ways. I’m actually working on an ebook about how leaders can help build confidence… confident humility.

  3. Alli Polin

    That’s a fantastic team building exercise that people can implement today no matter how long their team has been around. Getting the team to engage on proactive solutions and come to agreed upon mores for behavior helps the team self regulate moving forward too without the need for constant involvement from the leader. Love it!

    • Karin Hurt

      Thanks so much Alli. I do think it can work with teams of all tenure. If anyone else tries it, I’d love to hear how it goes.

  4. Mary reiss

    Great example of a non directive and reflective way to confront. Can you share some of the standards that teams come up with and how you have tracked and monitored progress?

    • Karin Hurt

      The biggest ones generally come down to communication. That they will call the behavior out (in private) to the person when the see it. And, that the person will be willing to listen to the concern and discuss it. Another favorite (getting to the gossip issue) is “no aboutism.” Teams agree to not talk “about” one another behind their backs. Also tangible standards for meeting behaviors (arriving on time), sharing the floor etc.), and email etiquette (distinguishing urgent from information, not replying to all when that is silly etc.)

      Yes, finding a time to circle back as a team and rate themselves is an important part of this work. And yes, when teams identify standards that they know will be discussed again, there is almost always significant progress. Sometimes there’s a necessary storming period as people call out the behaviors they see for discussion, but that’s good conflict.

      I’ve done this with my own teams. It can also be useful to have an external facilitator help. I’m doing this with a frontline leadership team this month.

      So great to have you join the conversation, I hope you will come back.

  5. Bruce Harpham

    This would be quite the exercise – I’ve never done anything quite like it. It does remind me a bit of “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team” by Patrick Lencioni.

    • Karin Hurt

      Bruce, Thanks so much. I find it powerful. Yes, I agree it would pair nicely with reading Lencioni’s book.


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Karin Hurt

Karin Hurt helps human-centered leaders find clarity in uncertainty, drive innovation, and achieve breakthrough results.  She’s the founder and CEO of Let’s Grow Leaders, an international leadership development and training firm known for practical tools and leadership development programs that stick. She’s the award-winning author of four books including Courageous Cultures: How to Build Teams of Micro-Innovators, Problem Solvers, and Customer Advocates and Powerful Phrases for Dealing with Workplace Conflict, and hosts the popular Asking For a Friend Vlog on LinkedIn. A former Verizon Wireless executive, Karin was named to Inc. Magazine’s list of great leadership speakers. Karin and her husband and business partner, David Dye, are committed to their philanthropic initiative, Winning Wells – building clean water wells for the people of Cambodia.

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