Debbie Craig and I co-authored an article recently, titled Leading Teams which was our approach towards the quest for high performance and effectiveness in teams. It analysed the cardinal elements within the three main drivers in high performance teams from the perspective of a practical model and toolkit that we have taught in our consulting assignments across many client organisations. It is a high level review focusing on:

  • The strategic alignment and style of a team leader;
  • What team processes he/she can harness to attain greatness; and
  • How to engage and motivate the people in the team for optimal results.

We believe that a leader who shapes his team using these three drivers should have a far greater record of leveraging team synergies in achieving success compared to the leader whose approach to teams is crisis and micro-management, often within an atmosphere of negativity, dissension and disillusionment.

But my question to you, today, is how do you turnaround a dysfunctional team?

We sense that teams that are battling to cope, sometimes described as “toxic” by their members, are on the rise in frequency – probably as a function of the enormous pressures and strains of trying to survive in a highly charged, turbulent and competitive world of work.

A lot of us can probably identify with the characteristics of these dysfunctional teams where there is a lack of common purpose, trust, respect and cohesiveness amongst members. The atmosphere is fractious with destructive team dynamics ranging from sniping, blaming, hyper-criticism and interpersonal rivalries and power plays that totally detract from team collaboration, sharing, growth and results.

The first step in these circumstances is for the team leader or his/her manager to acknowledge that there is a need to do something significant regarding the functioning of the team. There may be a number of remedies but we believe that the most effective is to initiate a turnaround intervention with the team and for its members to be co-designers in the plan going forward. Like anything in life that is not working well, it is the chance to stand back and see what needs changing and then do something about it! It is literally taking stock of the damaging impact of the team and committing to making a difference in improving its functionality, inter- team communications and membership behaviours.

We have called the technique the “dead cat exercise” and I was introduced to it many years ago when I was managing two disparate teams across two countries and was faced with constant internal bickering, professional rivalries and negative ructions during the implementation of a global strategic initiative. The intervention set the tone for a renewed approach to teamwork, improved the team’s mood significantly and achieved the goals that we had set! We have since used it successfully with some of our clients who have reported similar problems with teams that were going through difficult times and not meeting expectations.

The exercise that is being advocated is simply a metaphor for confronting the brutal reality of the way things were being done in the team – the derailing behaviours, inappropriate attitudes, non-compliant work practices and personal feuds that need to be confronted and worked through. It is a deliberate and controlled intervention, bringing all the feelings, unsaid views and perceptions from “under the table” and placing them “on the table”, where the goal of constructive improvement is sacrosanct and nobody feels threatened or vulnerable. It is the group analogy to the individually based process of holding crucial conversations.

The process is challenging, exacting and sensitive, often due to highly charged emotions, diverse views and high stakes at play. It is important to appoint a skilled facilitator to act as the catalyst in this team process, to unearth and address the problem issues plaguing the team and examine and explore options to resolving them as effectively as possible. It is important that the facilitator commences with the setting and agreeing of group norms for this team exercise. Laying out the “rules of the game” encourages transparency and honesty and a licence to air sometimes difficult conversations and personal unhappiness, within the goal of a genuine desire for improving team collaboration and effectiveness.

It is often the case that the “dead cat exercise” acts similarly to a psychological abreaction of getting a load of suppressed issues surfaced and addressed. We have found that often many of the die-hard assumptions can be immediately explained and better understood through more rigorous information exchange and background context – than might have initially happened.

The most important development after the team has explored all the issues and committed to a plan of action is to return to the team charter. Whether it has been in existence, absent or simply non applicable, the need for the team to refer to the team values or reinvent new, appropriate team values and appropriate behaviours in the form of a one pager team charter, is an essential post session follow up meeting. This would set the tone of the interactions across the team, further reinforce the agreed outcomes of the “dead cat exercise” intervention and shape and propel the team going into the future.

Catalyst has assisted many teams to establish team charters, get rid of the “dead cat” and create a high-performing team culture. If you are leading a team with untapped potential, contact us to see how we can partner to lead them to greatness:



Some books that we have really enjoyed recently are as follows:

The Exponential Organisation (please complete details and Amazon overview)

In performance, how you organize can be the key to growth.

In the past five years, the business world has seen the birth of a new breed of company—the Exponential Organization—that has revolutionized how a company can accelerate its growth by using technology. An ExO can eliminate the incremental, linear way traditional companies get bigger, leveraging assets like community, big data, algorithms, and new technology into achieving performance benchmarks ten times better than its peers.

Three luminaries of the business world—Salim Ismail, Yuri van Geest, and Mike Malone—have researched this phenomenon and documented ten characteristics of Exponential Organizations. Here, in EXPONENTIAL ORGANIZATIONS, they walk the reader through how any company, from a startup to a multi-national, can become an ExO, streamline its performance, and grow to the next level.