Project Practitioners > Does Dysfunction Serve a Purpose?

Does Dysfunction Serve a Purpose?

By Michael Aucoin

When scanning articles or books, I like to include provocative or contrarian topics in my search - they often provide interesting or new points of view. With my interest in helping dysfunctional teams, my eye was immediately drawn to an academic paper, "The Functions of Dysfunction: Implications for Organizational Diagnosis and Change," by William A. Kahn, who is on the faculty at Boston University.

My curiosity was piqued: what purpose could dysfunction possibly serve?

We would all agree that dysfunction in a project team is counterproductive to the reason a team exists. With this premise, we tend to approach dysfunction as an entirely negative and useless phenomenon - after all, the very word means the opposite of function. We focus on what is happening or not happening within the team relationships and design interventions accordingly. In so doing, we may miss some very important and relevant context. When we recognize that the dysfunction may serve some useful purpose, we can address and resolve unexpected causes that thwart the needs of the team. While Dr. Kahn's findings are based upon an extended consulting engagement with only one organization, his logic is solid and well supported. Above all, his perspective is a reminder to keep an open mind and be curious as we approach solutions to dysfunction in teams.

Dr. Kahn's consulting engagement was with a residential treatment center for at-risk boys. Staff members often worked at cross-purposes. Conflict, gossip and blame were rampant. Faced with such a situation, a leader may consider a variety of responses. One might be a directive for everyone to "play nice together". Another might be a re-organization. A third might be to discipline those that seem to be the most disruptive. Finally, an "enlightened" leader could sponsor various team-building activities - Karaoke Night, anyone? Any and all of these can be appropriate and helpful, but they still may not get to the root of the problem.

While people may honestly want to work for the good of the team, it is common for them to unknowingly sabotage these efforts. What may appear to others as irrational behavior often serves a need, even if that need is an unconscious one. Such needs are often related to self-defense against uncomfortable or painful situations or feelings. Powerful emotions demand expression - if they are not addressed directly and appropriately, individuals will "act out" in other ways.

In the case of the treatment center, Dr. Kahn's breakthrough came when individuals began to express anger and fear over the nature of the work itself. As one can appreciate, working with troubled and at-risk youth is demanding and fraught with problems. Some staff members feared physical confrontations with residents. Others felt guilty for a relatively happy upbringing as compared with the destructive homes from which many residents came. Such thoughts also led to anger directed toward the adults in these destructive homes. Still others felt a wave of despair about the seeming hopelessness of ever seeing these youth truly healed. Once there was a process to encounter and discuss these root feelings, coupled with some structural changes in the organization, the staff began to work together as a team.

Clearly, the uniquely challenging nature of work with troubled youth in this study practically guaranteed strong and dramatic emotions. But, sometimes drama is necessary to illuminate what would otherwise be overlooked. This is not to suggest that we delve deeply into Freudian analysis of co-workers - when it is needed, that must be left to professionals. Rather, the takeaway is to be aware that there may be hidden factors in the work and in the workplace that lead team members to act out the emotions of which they are unaware. Alternatively, there may be an "elephant" present in the room that no one feels comfortable to recognize.

What hidden factors may be feeding dysfunction in your team? The unrelenting stress of disjointed meetings, deadlines and problems to solve? The high stakes of projects? The difficulty of finding a work/home balance? By all means, if any hidden issues can be solved or improved, then do so. However, many issues related to work have no ready solution - they are inherent in the job. The real benefit of exploring hidden issues appropriately is allowing individuals an appropriate way to express the emotions associated with these issues. With a process for “letting off steam”, people are less likely to act out the emotions in other ways.

Here are a few parting thoughts to consider on the purpose of dysfunction.

  • Dysfunction happens for a reason. It stays until the reason is addressed and resolved. Team-building activities, even well intentioned ones, may help, but they can't work fully until we identify what is troubling team members.
  • The motivations of people are simultaneously both complex and simple. What typical project leader would think to consider the conflicted emotions of team members concerning their work environment as the source of team conflict? Yet, a "Duh!" moment occurs when we realize that, of course, humans are naturally going to experience a range of emotions about challenging or troubling work issues. The alternative is to work with unfeeling robots, and that gets old quickly.
  • Exploration of self-protective emotions and behaviors necessarily requires respect and gentleness. Remember that the feelings and actions occur for a good reason, even if that good reason doesn’t serve the interests of the team. Criticizing, discounting, or glossing over these responses will likely make matters worse.
  • It must also be said that all dysfunction within a team does not originate from self-protection against difficult aspects of the job. Sometimes there is substantive conflict between individuals, and such a source must be addressed accordingly.

The ability to consider how self-protective behaviors can cause team dysfunction offers another tool for a leader's toolkit. Have you observed some kind of dysfunction on your team – finger pointing, disengagement, or conflict based on personalities? Take a moment today to consider that the source of the dysfunction may be in a place you have not looked before.

 B. Michael Aucoin, D. Engr., PE, PMP is president of Leading Edge Management, LLC and author of Right-Brain Project Management (Management Concepts, 2007). He can be reached at


Not all comments are posted. Posted comments are subject to editing for clarity and length.

Outstanding reminder! I wish we could have this printed and handed out to every new manager everywhere. It's very easy to forget that we're managing people, not "resources" or work.

Thank you, Michael, for your insightful article! When we try to separate our work from our personal lives we are doomed to live a charade devoid of emotional authenticity. Let's give each other permission to confront and work through our feelings rather than burying them. They just burst to the surface at the most inopportune times anyhow!

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