The underperforming department: Three questions to improve team dynamics

Updated on January 12, 2011
Joe Frontiera

By Joe Frontiera, PhD & Dan Leidl, PhD

The impact of an underperforming department can be severe, as any hospital is comprised of multiple departments that rely upon one another directly or indirectly. Unfortunately, when confronted with a lagging department, the majority of health care providers are well beyond the point where they can simply add employees or upgrade technology to improve performance. Thankfully, though, leaders can still address faulty team dynamics.

Dan Leidl

While leaders are quick to acknowledge that something is “off” with their team, managers can become mired in confusion over what to do next. So they resort to a “team building” outing. While the day may be fun, many participants will simply resent the new backlog of work and question how the day’s activities related to their jobs. And, to a certain extent, they’re right. There’s a much better way for health care leaders to strengthen team dynamics, but it involves solemn self-reflection. To follow are three questions that leaders can explore to begin to address the dynamics of their own teams.

How does my team deal with conflict?

Many fissures in a team’s unity originate from team members’ inability to productively deal with conflict. To most, conflict should be avoided at all costs. Time and again, two individuals experience a disagreement, but rather than openly discuss their differences, they clam up and let the problem fester. In severe cases, they quietly recruit others onto “their side,” growing a two-person disagreement into a larger team battle. But within a team, it’s much more effective to embrace conflict. While counterintuitive, any conflict presents an opportunity to clarify mission, values, process, or develop a better understanding of the different personalities that comprise a team. A high performing team is one where members recognize that varying personalities and viewpoints of team members are key strengths.

Does my team communicate effectively?

Many health care systems are fast moving, a whirlwind of activity where individuals are trying to keep up with the high work demand. As employees become increasingly task focused, communication can easily become collateral damage. It’s important to identify whether there are structures and processes in place that allow team members to transfer pertinent information easily and effectively. If you find that information is communicated in an ad hoc fashion, it might be valuable to get the team together to challenge conventional wisdom: just because things have always been done one way does not mean it’s the best way. Finally, poor communication may simply result from a lack of effort. If communication deficiencies exist in your department, it might be a matter of convincing yourself and your team to bump it up on the priority list.

What part do I play in the current dynamics?

One defining truth about any team is that many of its qualities – positive and negative – can be traced back to the leader. Leaders have the opportunity to model the behavior they want from their team members, but at times their actions can conflict with their verbal messages. For example, a colleague begged his team to be more engaged and contribute more ideas. After witnessing this manager casually shoot down various team members’ ideas regularly, it became clear why his team members were disengaged. Some leaders will tell their team that they need to trust one another while forcing them to punch a timecard. Implicit in that act is the message: I don’t trust you to show up on time.  Along with conflicting messages, any time a team is focused on its own dysfunction it has lost sight of its larger purpose. Don’t forget that any leader who manages others has a powerful opportunity to provide a sense of purpose and meaning to his/her employees. When bickering and in-fighting have become status-quo, a leader has a clear sign that the team has lost sight of its larger purpose and that a conversation may be needed to realign the team.

Team dynamics can be changed with a sustained effort. Asking these three questions is a first step, akin to holding a mirror up to yourself and your team. While you will sometimes be satisfied, there will also be times when you dislike the reflection – which is a clear call to action.

Joe Frontiera, PhD and Dan Leidl, PhD are managing partners at Meno Consulting, a firm that focuses on team and leadership development. They can be reached at [email protected], or [email protected], or through their website at

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