From a Dysfunctional Group to a High Performing Team

Narbeh Mirzaei

VP of Engineering at Layer



A few years ago, I joined a company as a team lead. I was assigned to a mid-size team left without a manager for almost a year. It was nevertheless, a well-established team highly valued by the company with a number of high potential junior and senior engineers.

Operating without a lead for a year made them completely dysfunctional. It was a collection of individuals siloed according to their personal likings. Based on their personal preference they would team up and work on the tasks. When I joined the team, there was neither a roadmap nor a vision. Everyone did what they believed to be “the right way” and there was nothing close to a consensus on what was the right thing to do. In addition, communication was under a bare minimum, grouplets were siloed, and animosity between them flourished. Newcomers were left to their own devices and they ended up copying the existing model of behavior. As a result, the team lost agility and was highly reluctant to change. Throughout the process I was inspired by Tuckman’s stages of group development, named after a psychologist Bruce Tuckman who identified five stages of development: forming, storming, norming, performing, and adjourning.

Actions taken

It was obviously a leadership challenge that required me to try different things applying the trial-and-error approach. Based on that I developed a framework, the three-step strategy consisting of non-exclusive, transitional steps.

1. Positioning

First and foremost, I positioned myself in the middle of everything. I wanted to be engaged in conversations, attend all the meetings, and act as a cohesive force between discrepant groups of people. I was not trying to solve the communication problem but to be there to facilitate the interactions. I was truly curious and enthusiastic about the work being done by the team.

Gradually, I started building individual relationships with every person on the team. I would have one-on-ones or go for a walk with people hoping to get to know them better and establish a trustful relationship with them. I also wanted every individual in the team to get to know me, trust me, and understand my intentions. Important to say, all this time I was merely observing and not trying to change anything. I wanted to better identify the problems before rushing into solving them.

2. Chaos

Slowly, as I started to remove myself from a middleman role, things imploded. It was the time for me to step into, what effectually was, chaos, and roll up my sleeves. I started by putting people who didn’t like each other and rarely worked together before on common tasks. When people collaborate and solve things together, they eventually start trusting each other. Another important thing I introduced was identifying and naming a problem. People were often reluctant to acknowledge that there was a problem, let alone coming up with a plan on how to address it. Many of those conversations were emotionally taxing but eventually led to clarity and visibility. Also, I would challenge all the ideas proposed by the team with an intent to “normalize” disagreements. By doing so, I was showing them that there was no need to avoid conflicts over ideas but that they should work together to solve them. Needless to say, I was often the first to speak my mind and thus serve as a role model.

3. Order

Then, things started to become more orderly. People would get to know each other better and steadily establish trust among themselves. It was time for me to start working on creating a unifying vision and communicate it clearly to the team. I set up clear objectives and made sure everyone was aware of them. To bring people closer, I created opportunities for them to not only work together but also socialize outside of the office. One of the crucial things at this phase was to have every person recognize their contribution to the team. I needed them to understand that everyone is taking a piece of the problem since in a functional team everyone has its role to play. In the end, I created a space to celebrate team achievements and positive reinforcements, something that was long forgotten in the previous period.

Lessons learned

  • Be patient! There are no set rules on how long the process is going to take. Building trust, for example, is something that is resistant to time-bound commitments. However, you will know when is the right time to move to the next step.
  • Even in dysfunctional teams, most people want to do their best, do meaningful work, and enjoy it. Your role as a leader would be to enable that and create opportunities for your teammates. I had to set up a safe playing field before introducing any changes in the workflow or their attitude.
  • Don’t be tempted to make any changes instantly. First, observe carefully and if needed, for a longer period of time. Be aware that most dysfunctional teams would resist the change because they consciously chose a sub-optimal way of doing things and would be reluctant to accept any suggestion coming from the “outside”. As a new person joining the team, you will not have enough credibility yet and will be getting a lot of pushback. You definitely want to kill the blame culture first. Instead of entitlement, you have to introduce accountability and ownership.
  • From day one I followed a certain set of principles as if they were already established. This was for building culture and I strongly believe culture requires principles. I had to establish that foundation, communicate it widely, and act accordingly since actions speak louder than words.

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Narbeh Mirzaei

VP of Engineering at Layer

Leadership DevelopmentCommunicationOrganizational StrategyCulture DevelopmentEngineering ManagementPerformance MetricsFeedback TechniquesLeadership RolesTeam & Project ManagementDiversity & Inclusion

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