October 13, 2008

How Does Dysfunctional Behavior Influence Team Performance – and What Can You Do about It?

Research by Dr. Michael Cole

Dysfunctional behavior can substantially harm work team functioning and diminish organizations' success. As a recent study shows ( Journal of Applied Psychology , September 2008), dysfunctional behavior creates negative emotions among team members which, in turn, diminishes team performance. These consequences disappear, however, if team members refrain from expressing their negative feelings. Thus, the effective management of members' emotions is key to preventing team performance detriments.

With the increasing use of teams, team performance has become a critical component of organizational success. Thus, organizations desire employees who are "team players", that is, who are willing and able to work effectively in team settings. Nevertheless, dysfunctional behavior occurs frequently in work teams, including employee theft and sabotage, social undermining, and antisocial activities directed towards teammates.

At its core, the detrimental consequences of dysfunctional team behavior are driven by members' negative emotions.

To date, research has devoted limited attention to the effects of dysfunctional team behavior. Therefore, little remains known about how such behavior may influence team performance. The study conducted by Michael S. Cole (Management Professor, Neeley School of Business , Texas Christian University ), Frank Walter (Rijksuniversiteit Groningen), and Heike Bruch (University of St. Gallen) addresses this issue. It demonstrates that dysfunctional behavior severely impacts teams' performance levels. Specifically, such behavior contributes to the experience of negative emotions among all members of a team (i.e., negative affective tone). These negative emotions, in turn, reduce team members' motivation and distract them from their tasks, reducing the teams' ability to produce effective performance outputs.

Teams differ in the way they deal with their members' negative emotions. In some teams, members are explicitly or implicitly encouraged to openly express their negative feelings and to "blow off steam." Such teams tend to be imprisoned by the experience of frustration and anxiety that results from dysfunctional behavior. With team members exhausting their resources trying to cope with their negative feelings, teams' overall performance declines sharply. Other teams, by contrast, tend to withhold the expression of negative feelings and to "bottle it up".  The negative affective tone triggered by dysfunctional behavior remains of little relevance in such teams. By consequence, members remain focused on the tasks at hand, enabling the team to retain its performance levels. In sum, the performance effects of dysfunctional team behavior (through teams' negative affective tone) depend on team members' way of expressing their negative feelings.

What does this mean from a practical perspective - for the effective management of dysfunctional team behavior? Clearly, organizations should strive to minimize the occurrence of such behavior to maintain a favorable work environment for employees and to prevent team performance detriments from the outset. Preventive actions may include communicating strong behavioral norms, proactively managing team conflicts, and eliminating negative role models. Managers may also wish to emphasize team cohesiveness and to raise members' awareness of the importance of common goals.

In spite of such efforts, organizations are unlikely to fully eliminate all dysfunctional behavior in their teams. Also, as our study shows, even minor instances of dysfunctional behavior may contribute to members' negative emotions and strongly disrupt team functioning. Hence, the effective management of team members' negative emotional expressions is critical to curtail the performance consequences of dysfunctional team behavior. Managers are, however, faced with a dilemma. On the one hand, our results show that members' expression of negative affect is detrimental to team performance. On the other hand, the suppression of negative feelings has been associated with numerous negative consequences for individuals, including reduced cognitive functioning and a loss of motivation.

To resolve this dilemma, two strategies seem viable. First, managers may try to influence the extent to which dysfunctional behaviors activate negative emotions among team members by re-interpreting negative events in neutral or positive terms. They might, for instance, label instances of dysfunctional behavior as opportunities for improvement rather than threats to team functioning. Compared to the suppression of negative emotional reactions, such reappraisal is less cognitively demanding, and it allows for the effective management of negative emotions in work teams without incurring detrimental individual consequences.

Second, once negative emotions have occurred as a result of dysfunctional team behavior, managers may try to redirect the expression of these negative feelings in a productive manner. Research has shown that negative emotional expressions can have positive consequences in certain circumstances. Specifically, such expressions need to occur in a socially acceptable manner, and they need to be directed at persons capable of altering the conditions evoking the negative feelings (e.g., at persons who are able to curtail specific instances of dysfunctional behavior). Emotion regulation training may be effective to encourage such productive expressions of team members' negative emotions and, by consequence, to ameliorate the performance impacts of dysfunctional behavior.

The effective management of dysfunctional team behavior is a challenging task. Rather than simply prohibiting the expression of negative feelings, managers should enable employees to view unfavorable issues in a more positive light and to find appropriate, productive ways of expressing negative emotions. By doing so, it becomes possible to retain high levels of team performance even if instances of dysfunctional behavior occur within the team.


Elaine Cole
Public Relations Manager
Neeley School of Business at TCU