Reforming Dysfunctional Teams

Dr. Tracy Reimer (@TracyReimer53), Bethel University Program Director: EdD Leadership in K-12 Administration

Mrs. Becky Gerdes (@BeckyJoGerdes), Bethel University Adjunct Faculty: Special Education Department



Trust matters because it is at the core of everything we do. With trust, few things are out of reach; without it, efforts are undermined. Dysfunctional teams often have a history of miscommunication, misuse of school resources, and conflict. Reforming a dysfunctional team to functional requires more than establishing trust; it requires restoring trust. The restoration of trust can be a long and difficult process.


Principal leadership is essential to restoring a trusting environment through the direction of the school’s mission and vision; team members know where they are heading and why they are headed there. Principals committed to restoring trust create formal structures such as PLCs, staff meetings, and grade-level meetings with established norms that shift control from the principal to the teachers. Trust focused principals ensure that clear, scaffolded expectations for group task(s) and products are articulated and supported with modeling and examples.

Principals begin the restoration process by planning low-risk exchanges that are social in nature and identifying easily accomplished group tasks. Trust grows through positive interactions with increased frequency and duration. Low-risk exchanges reduce vulnerabilities and set the stage for future high-risk exchanges such as sharing student achievement data and addressing classroom instructional practices (Kochanek, 2005). Positive team momentum builds and fosters a shared purpose. Individuals realize they have a genuine contribution to make, and the team realizes they can leverage their talent to achieve significant results. Group members become confident, entrusted, and empowered. Trust grows through interactions, perceived intentions, and sense of obligation.


Some teams use norms very well and others don’t.  Highly functional teams develop norms and follow them.  When norms are not followed, a school leader can hear a variety of complaints from teams and their team leaders.  Sometimes a frustrated team leader will tell the principal that her/his team developed norms but they are just ignored. Other teams appear to get along very well but don’t get very much accomplished.  This team leader will probably say his/her team is pretending to follow the norms.  Other teams might not accomplish very much yet resist having norms because one or more team members think they are unnecessary.

Steps principals can support and enforce to ensure that norms work:

  1. Develop norms as a team.  Most teams have completed the process, perhaps many times.
  2.  Post norms in the meeting area or have them listed on the agenda. An additional step teams can take to commit to the norms is to have everyone sign them and post the signed copy on the wall in the workspace where the team meets.
  3. Verbally review the norms at the beginning of team meetings.  Although this may seem unnecessary, the verbal review is a group reminder and usually takes less than a minute.  As teams work together, they may find that the review of norms at the beginning of each meeting is unnecessary, but this typically only happens after a team has worked together for an extended period of time and consistently followed the norms the group set.
  4. Remind team members when someone is not following one of the norms.  Often times there are one or two norms that a team struggles with.  Determining a signal such as the time-out signal or holding up the number of fingers for the number of the norm being violated provides a non-confrontational strategy to address norm protocol.
  5.  Evaluate how well the group followed the norms at the end of every meeting.  This only takes a few minutes.  It can be as simple as going through the list and having everyone give a fist to five on each norm and then discussing norms that are less than a five to establish a commitment to improve.
  6. Discussing and role modeling how to handle conflict amongst team members are helpful steps that leaders can take so they are prepared to support teams with norm setting and handling situations when team members break norms.


Trust is the foundation of a successful team relationship. Any time a group forms there is a play for roles, power, responsibilities, and positioning.  This is natural and happens in professional settings.  The engagement becomes dysfunctional if it goes unchecked.  It is common for team members to have triggers, quirks, and behavior issues.  The goal is that the team manages their interactions. When norms are developed in collaboration and adhered to, a safe place for teamwork is created.  It is important to remember the quality of the team impacts student performance, the school environment, and the overall school operations (DuFour & Marzano, 2011).  A leader has the ability to create an environment where people are encouraged to work together using their talents and skills to achieve common goals.  Intentional planning builds connected and collaborative teams.


DuFour, R., & Marzano, R. J. (2011). Leaders of learning: How district, school, and classroom leaders improve student achievement. Solution Tree Press.

Kochanek, J. R. (2005). Building trust for better schools: Research-based practices. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

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