While no workplace is perfect, there are shades of gray when it comes to dysfunction. While you hear about the toxic workplace—one that is so rife with negativity that you feel dread and anxiety even before you arrive at your desk—you probably know that it’s not always so easy to just smack that label on an entire organization.
After all, you may really like your company and your role, but find that you’re working on an incredibly chaotic team. You may also find that when there’s ongoing conflict in your department, that dissatisfaction can carry over into other parts of your overall happiness and well-being.
And that’s because dysfunction’s like annoying background noise. It’s always there, subtly impacting interactions. While it may not be influencing your work or mood to the point where you’re thinking about quitting (yet), it’s important to manage the situation before it does get out of control.
Here are some steps you can take:
1. Figure Out What You’re Dealing With
Before you can take steps to address the problem, you have to evaluate what exactly you’re dealing with.
Look for patterns in team dynamics. Is everyone always steamrolling each others’ opinions? Does the group meet infrequently and lack direction, or does everyone feel collectively overwhelmed by outside expectations?
The more you can pinpoint the problem, the faster you can move to step two.
2. Figure Out What You Can Change
Once you’ve identified the problem, you can identify what you can and can’t fix.
A big problem I see with my clients is that they let little annoyances build up. For example, they don’t confront difficult co-workers or directly communicate with their boss about what’s going on.
Instead, they make assumptions, internalize issues, and have erroneous expectations that they don’t vocalize. And these actions only allow problems to fester, perpetuating the dysfunction.
Let’s say you find yourself working overtime because the rest of the team isn’t pulling their weight. You can broach the topics with your boss using a simple, three-line assertion message:
- First, summarize the situation and describe the facts: “I’ve stayed until 8 PM working on the product launch for the last five days.”
- Then, indicate your feeling, stance, or perception: “My sense is that we need to re-evaluate the workload and resources dedicated to the project. I have a few ideas for how we could approach this.”
- Finally, make an explicit request: “I’d like to have a meeting with you to discuss. What time on Monday works best?”
Notice that using this approach shows you’re proactive. You’re not interested in blaming others or complaining—you’re looking for solutions.
I know it’s scary, but identifying what you can change and speaking up breaks the cycle. Whether you’re a team leader or just a team member, it’s important to assertively call out problems when you feel comfortable doing so (and I know that comfort depends on your organization and what the problem is).
3. Figure Out What You Can Learn From the Situation
If you determine you can’t change anything (or change enough), remember that you do have full control over your actions and attitudes.
Make the best of a less-than-ideal situation by seeking out unique opportunities to grow and learn new things even when the cards are stacked against you. By doing so, you embrace a growth mindset, reframing a challenge as an opportunity for personal and professional progress.
For example, I had a client who felt like her manager was blocking all of her ideas. She reframed her mindset about the situation and saw that it was a chance to exercise and hone her negotiating skills, which turned it into a fun experiment for her rather than something she dreaded.
And the final step: Figure out what’s best for you. Ultimately, it’s crucial to have good boundaries between your work and home life and take care of yourself first. If a dysfunctional team’s affecting your health and you can’t seem to right the ship (or honestly, don’t think it’s your place to do so), don’t waste months or years trying to make things better.
At the end of your day, your well-being is your number one asset. Consider your long-term plan for your career, and make your own professional and personal goals a priority.