Case Study: A Dysfunctional Team

Instructor's Notes

© Peter Atkinson
July, 2006

The problems with this team are part of its genetic material. The relationship between M and R was never going to work. However, it is useful to examine the problems of the team on two levels: the level of the individuals involved and the level of the team.

M is a difficult person to work with except for those who fulfil his personal need to confirm his status. He must do everything his own way. He deals with alternative suggestions either by ignoring them or by treating them as plain wrong. His tactic when dealing with R is to use what Dixit and Nalebuff term "the power of intransigence" (1): he will not bend so R has to in order to avoid immediate disaster.

At first sight, M and R might appear to be a strong combination. Using the Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), R’s personality type is INTJ:

Usually have original minds and great drive for their own ideas and purposes. Sceptical, critical, independent, determined, often stubborn

whereas, M is ESFJ:

Warm-hearted, talkative, popular, conscientious, born co-operators. Need harmony. Work best with encouragement. Little interest in abstract thinking or technical subjects (2)

These are almost complete opposites and, other factors aside, should provide the necessary counterweight to each other. However, M has considerable professional weaknesses which he is constantly attempting to conceal and these acts of concealment include the very act of building the team so as to have the weight of numbers on his side.

In fact, M and R have different conceptions of the team. The two leaders have different functional backgrounds so this is, from the outset, a Cross-Functional team. (3) R thinks that this will develop by bringing in people from different functional backgrounds to build core competencies and eventually break the team up into a number of functional teams as the business develops. M, on the other hand, tries to build a team using people from the same functional background. He is following his own rigid formula and does not see any need for flexibility. He builds a team where the members all have the same background as him.

Researchers who have attempted to identify traits that make effective managers have identified a variety of leadership traits but these have proved difficult to pin down. Nevertheless, there seems to be some sort of broad agreement about what these traits might be. In order to simplify the discussion the "Big Five" model was developed. (4)

Correspondence of the Big Five Traits with Specific Traits
Big Five Personality Traits Specific Traits
Surgency Extroversion (outgoing)
Energy and Activity Level
Need for Power (assertive)
Conscientious Dependability
Personal Integrity
Need for Achievement
Agreeableness Cheerful and Optimistic
Nurturance (sympathetic, helpful)
Need for Affiliation
Adjustment Emotional Stability
Intellectance Curious and Inquisitive
Open Minded
Learning Oriented

The leadership of the team in question has weaknesses in many of these areas. R may be seen as weak in the area of Surgency, specifically in Need for Power. He allows M to make appointments that he feels are unnecessary and does not attempt to counter M’s team building tactic by building his own team. On the other hand, M is weak in the areas of Adjustment and Intellectance.

When M is not feeling threatened his personality seems to correspond to the upbeat and positive terms that are used to describe his MBTI category. Unfortunately, at this level of responsibility, M’s intellectual weaknesses become apparent. At a lower and middle management level he appears to be knowledgeable and dependable but at a strategic level his inability to think conceptually becomes critical. Of course, if someone is unable to think conceptually it is not possible for them to discuss strategy because they must always focus on concrete outcomes, for example, M thinks that the organisation should have a magazine but does not formulate who its audience will be or what its brand values will be leaving the person asked to produce it uncertain as to what is required. His MBTI type description mentions that he is uninterested in abstract thinking so he has no inclination to develop skills in strategic thinking. On the other hand, R’s MBTI type description says that he has a drive to develop ideas and an inclination to adopt a critical stance.

The personality types of M and R might have been a useful counterbalance to each other were it not for M’s weakness in the area of Adjustment. Because M is unable to discuss strategy and because he has the most experience of the field, he believes that the procedures he knows from experience amount to the only strategy available. He takes other suggestions as negative criticism of himself personally. He feels threatened by these supposed criticisms and this situation puts him under pressure.

Kets de Vries and Miller discuss organisational neuroses that are brought about by the neurotic behaviour of the leaders. In this case the team is not fully formed so it is difficult to tell whether it will develop a neurotic personality. As these writers observe, there is a continuous range of behaviour from normal, healthy behaviour with occasional tendencies towards the neurotic characteristics through to psychosis. A leader may display neurotic behaviour only when under pressure. M displays characteristics if what they term the "mirroring" or "narcissistic" executive:

… they have a grandiose sense of self-importance and uniqueness and are desperately in search of praise…likely to feel threatened by strong subordinates who might be able to upstage them. These employees pose the double threat of competing for the limelight and withholding their admiration when they are uncomfortable with the leader’s proposals… many resources (managerial and financial) are squandered in the pursuit of grandiosity. (5)

M feels threatened by R’s independence of mind and his response is to bring in to supporters who will give him the confirmation he craves. When the failure of his marketing strategy becomes obvious, he belittles R’s work and calls his competence into question. Kets de Vries and Miller talk of a characteristic of narcissist leaders called "splitting" where the narcissist divides the world rigidly into those that are on his side and those who are against him. (6) In fact, M’s behaviour under pressure displays many characteristics that are the classic characteristics of the workplace bully. (7)

M perceives his marketing role as being focused on promotional activities that he knows well. Many writers have discussed the importance of leaders having a close understanding of the market they serve but M shows no interest in finding out about his customers. Instead, he believes that his role is to tell customers what they ought to want which is, again, typical of the narcissistic executive who cannot face reality. Additionally, M does not have the mental agility to analyse a changing situation and adapt to it.

If we now turn to looking at the problem at the level of the team, we can see that the inherent problems of the team were exacerbated by its being a virtual team. M’s dislike of abstraction carries over into a dislike of written communication. He often fails to fully reply to emails that contain more than one point making virtual working difficult. One writer comments that, "The lack of face-to-face communication may make it even more tempting for individuals to try to present their information, knowledge or opinions as certain and unchallengeable and may impede evolving group development processes," (8) and M uses the virtual nature of the working environment to avoid discussing matters that he does not wish to discuss. In fact, most of the communication that takes place in this team is by email, which is asynchronous. Telephone conversations are infrequent and always between no more than two people. The use of conference calls would have gone some way to improving the situation, though regular meetings of the whole team would have been the only way to make a significant improvement.

Lipnack and Stamps identify seven steps that are necessary in the launch of a virtual team (9):

  1. Create identity
  2. Draft mission
  3. Determine milestones
  4. Set goals
  5. Identify members
  6. Establish relationships
  7. Choose media

The identity of the team was created when M and R came together to work on the project and the project was given a name. Unfortunately, because of M’s lack of strategic ability none of the other six steps followed. Lipnack and Stamps comment, "Rule number 1 of every team is to get the purpose right early and review it often. This exercise is at once more important and more difficult for virtual teams." But, M and R, who are the core of the team, never have a common purpose. They lose C because of the lack of a purpose. R ultimately becomes marginalised because M and R are unable to agree a common purpose or strategy.

Many writers dealing with the subject of virtual teams stress the central importance of building and maintaining trust in virtual teams. The most effective way to build trust is through face-to-face contact and this kind of contact is to be recommended wherever possible. (10) In this case, R has little face-to-face contact with the rest of the team whereas the other team members are able to have relatively frequent face-to-face contact enabling M to build his influence over the members of the team who he has introduced and bringing about R’s marginalisation.

The weaknesses of M as a manager would become apparent in any situation eventually. He is unable to conceptualise so he cannot articulate or discuss strategy. However, he is able to conceal this weakness by marginalising his critic, R, through building a team of people who are prepared to take him at face value and using the characteristics of the virtual team to marginalise R.


Reference List

1. Dixit, Avinash K & Nalebuff, Barry J (1991), Thinking Strategically, New York: Norton.

2. Leonard, Dorothy & Straus, Susan (1997), "Putting your company’s whole brain to work", Harvard Business Review, July-August 1997.

3. Yukl, Gary (2002), Leadership in Organisations, NJ: Prentice-Hall, pp. 306-313.

4. Yukl, pp. 191-2.

5. Kets de Vries, Manfred F R & Miller (1984), Danny, The Neurotic Organisation, San Francisco: Wiley, pp. 84-87.

6. Kets de Vries, Manfred F R & Miller (1985), "Narcissism and Leadership: an object relations perspective", Human Relations, Vol38-6.

7. See, for example, www.bullyonline.org/workbully/

8. Oakley, Judith G (1998), "Leadership processes in virtual teams and organisations", Journal of Leadership Studies, Vol. 5.

9. Lipnack, Jessica & Stamps, Jeffrey (2000), Virtual Teams, New York: Wiley.

10. Oakley (1998).