How to Deal With Dysfunctional Team Members

employee with feet on desk

by Matt Dierdorff

I was recently in conversation with a friend who is in the midst of some conflict within their management position. In order to better manage this conflict they’ve chosen to bring someone in to serve in a coaching/consultant capacity. This friend shared the frustration they experienced as this third party, instead of confronting the toxic realities of some of the team members, instead asked the manager to find ways to affirm the broken perspectives they found. For example, rather than find ways to empower a staff member who had a disconnect with authority, they encouraged a job description change which exchanged the words “supervised by” to “collaborates with” though this is not the true reality of the team relationship. In another instance, the manager was encouraged to share what amounts to office gossip in order to nourish a staff member who craves being “in the know.”


As I sat and listened, I couldn’t believe that this facilitator would trade long-term health for a short-term reprieve. The scenario reminded me of the film “50 First Dates” in which the plot-line follows the female lead, Drew Barrymore, who is not aware that a previous car accident leaves her with a long-term memory no greater than 24 hours. Anything which happened yesterday, she no longer recalls. In order to protect her from the pain residing in the truth, her family, with purely positive intent, recreate the same flawless day over and over. This meets the need of eliminating the pain of her condition, but obviously does not provide a very robust life for her or for her family. Enter the male lead, Adam Sandler no less. After stumbling headlong into the truth of the situation accidentally, he risks what her family has been unable to risk. He tells her the story of her accident and the consequences which resulted. What we find is that the temporary pain she experiences is soon replaced with a real, authentic life, if even for merely 24 hours. His courage to push through the facade results in vibrancy and health, the real intent of the family. They just believed they could arrive there without the baggage which would come with honesty.

As individuals in positions of leadership, we are tempted to tape together others’ broken realities and dysfunctions. One separation of the tape could leave a mess on our hands, so we work diligently to sustain this fragile scenario. We ignore. We skirt. We accommodate and we tolerate. Like the family in the movie, we stay up all night, every night, repainting the same room in the house, so she can paint it tomorrow, like she has every day since the accident. We’ve decided we’d rather have short-term reprieves than long-term health. Our organization, our life, and the contributions of our team suffer as a result. Perhaps this is the week you choose, with positive intent, to be honest about some brokenness. How do you move forward?

1. Practice the Platinum Rule. No longer is it helpful to merely do to others as YOU would have them do to you. You must treat them as THEY want to be treated. Find a way to translate the truth you must share into a language that specific individual can hear and embrace. This is your role as management. You must be multi-lingual, because the way you hear a truth is different than the way it is heard by your team-members.

2. Lead with your fear and perhaps an apology. Share that you can see what may occur should the situation continue to be present, and that this moves you to trust that person with what you intend to share. Maybe if the expiration date for the conversation has been lingering for awhile, you may need to apologize for not meeting with them sooner. Communicate in a way that acknowledges that hard conversations can be had with people who believe the best about each other.

3. Do it now. We’ve all experienced the angst of on-going poorly-managed conflict. Elephants fill the room, eyes drop to the floor, and barricades to progress are erected to keep these crucial conversations at bay. However, we’ve probably also experienced the sense of relief which comes from engaging these “monkeys on our back” with intention. Having certain things out on the table, no matter how awkward they may seem, create a healthier climate than the mirage of trust we too often uphold.

About the author

Matt Dierdorff assists entrepreneurs, executives, small business owners, leaders of non-profits, and politicians in thinking and leading forward. You can engage him through Connect with him in a coaching relationship or join a coaching cohort today.