Investigating IT Dysfunction: How to Identify The Root of The Issue


When dealing with dysfunctional IT teams in the workplace, learn how to identify the root of the issue and address problems before they have a chance to appear.

Challenge and Strife

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” With what might be the most famous opening line in literature, Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities examines how, even in the face of unprecedented success, the foundations of a situation are still at risk of seeing everything collapsing in upon itself.

It’s hard to imagine things can go so terribly wrong with all that’s going so right.

No matter how hard you try, things can and do go wrong, usually when the stakes are highest; the technology does not work, the budget is overrun, deadlines are missed. Above all is the challenge of when a good team becomes dysfunctional. This can eat away at the very pillars of success at the exact time you need them most.

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One option when things go wrong is to put your head in the sand. Another is to fire the people responsible—employees, service providers, and vendors alike. No good comes from these approaches. The hard truth is it’s better to focus on the underlying reasons why a team is not working, calmly acknowledging and accepting failures, and then working on the little things to put you back on track.

Addressing Root Causes

Dysfunctional teams typically lack one or more of the following:

A strong leader

While difficult, the first place to look for addressable issues is at the top. Is the leader performing at the level required and working to the standards of performance expected? Part of being a leader is knowing that people are watching and taking cues from your behavior, so this is the natural place to start improving your team’s performance.

Shared, well-defined goals and priorities

Successful people are adaptable and can pivot quickly, but they also need to understand and align with shared goals and priorities. A well-organized team defines and buys into the project’s goals from the outset, sets out a road map of how to get there, and is willing to adapt when things change. If you think all the stakeholders are convinced, do another round to make sure they really are. It may feel counterintuitive—you have probably felt like you were herding cats to get everyone convinced—but in this second round, you will often find out whether people still have concerns. While it may be difficult, it is much easier to address issues up front in a transparent way rather than halfway through the project when the actual point is lost.


It’s a team effort, and everyone needs to do their job. Without accountability, it’s easy to lose focus and motivation to meet deadlines or to deliver quality outcomes.

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Dysfunctional teams are easily sidetracked. Meetings get caught up in seemingly endless debates. More time is spent discussing an issue than working on it. More people are in the room than need to be. These are some telling signs that the project is headed in the wrong direction.


When trust is eroded, detrimental behaviors increase in one way or another. People respond in different ways. Some become defensive, while others become disengaged. Delivering technology projects can be frantic, so having leaders who can continually motivate the team on a common level and have them believe in the promises made is critical.


What you say, how you say it, and when you say it is important. When communication fails, imaginations tend to work overtime. Theories and opinions rather than facts begin to take over. It’s also important to have the difficult conversations up front to avoid impossible ones later on.

Engagement: When team members become less distracted from their work, they often focus on meeting just the minimum standard and are driven by a belief that performance doesn’t really matter.

Conflict avoidance

Conflict is often considered a negative. But in the right environment, it’s a natural and healthy aspect of any team interaction. Diversity of experience and opinions can help teams identify new ways of looking at problems and finding alternative ways of solving them.

At the same time, dysfunctional teams tend to have one or more of these things actively happening:

Erratic outcomes

Nothing is more telling than when outcomes vary from good to bad, to good again in quick succession. Erratic outcomes are a good indicator that things are not working as planned or desired.

Individuals seeking glory

Worse still, when a project falls into the “sinking ship” stage, team members can become more concerned about protecting themselves rather than helping peers succeed. A true team is one where each member is concerned not only with how they perform, but how they can help other team members perform.


While micromanagers might think they are doing the right thing—checking in from a desire to help and support the team—constantly checking to make sure everyone is doing their job can also indicate a lack of confidence. Striking the right balance can be difficult, but it should be a priority.

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Facing Hard Truths

Dysfunctional teams don’t become that way overnight; it takes time and inattention for a team to reach a level of dysfunction. But when they do appear, everyone should do one thing: embrace failure.

Facing hard truths like “things aren’t going” well is hard. But, to get back on track and resume heading down the right path, tough truths need to be faced, and decisions must be made.

Out of the Dark . . . Into the Light

When investigating dysfunction, it’s often found that it’s not just the people involved in the project—usually it has something to do with the overall culture and processes that need to be addressed. Take a hint when it seems like things are going wrong and slow everything down.

Allowing everyone to step away and refocus, even for a short while, can have immediate and long-term benefits.

Of course, some people will not be a good fit for the reset, but it would be wrong to look at a dysfunctional team or project environment and overly generalize. It’s more important to be surgical than to paint with a broad brush.

Finally, don’t forget to keep an eye out for potential signs of dysfunction before they take hold. Great leaders address potential problems before they ever have a chance to appear.

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