Holidays, Family, and Dysfunctional Teams


From My Dysfunctional Family to Yours

For many of us, a big part of the holiday season is seeing our extended family twice over the course of a month. As I sat at the Thanksgiving table this year, a heated discussion brewed up around possible changes to the Christmas get-together. As everyone went about assuming their usual roles, I realized that my family mirrors a dysfunctional team, not unlike many of the client teams I’ve worked with in the past.

Aunt Kathleen, our host and holiday traditionalist (unsurprisingly, a dominator), was taken aback when Cousin Patty (an initiator), thanked her for her past organizing leadership and hospitality, but suggests we try some new things for this year’s Christmas get-together.  Immediately, Aunt Kathleen begins a defensive monologue detailing her stellar record coordinating the Christmas gathering and how no one has had any complaints before.

Uncle Jim jumps in with an insulting joke about the size of Aunt Kathleen’s ears and how you think she’d be a better listener – which gets a hushed giggle from around the table and makes Uncle Jim beam (get it – Jim Beam), thus confirming his continued status as the family disruptor/joker.

At this point, I can already see Aunt Sarah (recognition seeker) gearing up to talk about her experience planning her office holiday party, Cousin Matt (our aggressor) getting ready to jump in and attack Cousin Patty for presenting a “dumb” idea and Second Cousin Alma (our help seeker) murmuring about how much she wanted to help, but how she just didn’t know what she was doing and wasn’t sure she could provide anything valuable to the planning.

It was like the batman signal flashed before me - I could see they needed me to unleash my professional expertise working with dysfunctional teams (and let’s be honest, I’m probably the family’s Opinion Giver).

One of the most effective ways to help a dysfunctional team is to set the tone. With that in mind, I expressed enthusiasm for the idea of changing up some of our holiday traditions, but sandwiched it – suggesting that doing some new things, combined with the tried and true traditions we hold dear, could keep our holiday celebration from getting stale. I wanted to provide a safe space for those who love the old ways (Aunt Kathleen) and for those who want to introduce something new (Cousin Patty and Aunt Sarah).

With the table warmed a bit to the idea of a combination of safe and new, I began to walk through the must-haves of our family celebration (hot cocoa while decorating the tree) and then solicited new ideas (a round of Dirty Santa on Christmas Eve). I asked everyone for specific input so I would have buy-in from the team. Once I mapped out the input, it became clear that half of the suggestions were not a threat to any of the must-haves on the list.

I then facilitated a discussion to see if we could come to an agreement that we would have Patty, Sarah and Matt work on some ideas to email to the larger group in the next week about incorporating the non-threatening ideas. Kathleen agreed she would incorporate the ideas into the holiday gathering and we asked Second Cousin Alma to serve as support to Kathleen in her planning as a way for her to increase her knowledge and expertise. Uncle Jim was given the task of making a short, funny speech about the family and this past year, which gave him a way to add value without dishing out insults does or shutting anyone down.

While it doesn’t always work out so neatly (I’ll let you know how it went in January), Milepost is a trusted expert helping dysfunctional teams work past problematic interactions and habits to make collaborations more efficient and impactful. If your team has too many Aunt Kathleens and you’re not sure where to start, reach out. We’d love to connect.

References for roles and definitions:  

  • Aggressor – Makes personal attacks using belittling and insulting comments, for example, "That's the most ridiculous idea I've ever heard." Actions are usually an attempt to decrease another member's status.
  • Blocker – Opposes every idea or opinion that is put forward and yet refuses to make own suggestions, for example, "That's not a good idea." The result is that the group stalls because it can't get past the resistance.
  • Recognition Seeker – Uses group meetings to draw personal attention to him or herself. May brag about past accomplishments or relay irrelevant stories that paint him or her in a positive light. Sometimes pulls crazy stunts to attract attention like acting silly, making excess noise, or otherwise directing members away from the task at hand.
  • Disrupter/Playboy or Playgirl – Uses group meetings as fun time and a way to get out of real work. Distracts other people by telling jokes, playing pranks, or even reading unrelated material.
  • Dominator – Tries to control the conversation and dictate what people should be doing. Often exaggerates his or her knowledge and will monopolize any conversation claiming to know more about the situation and have better solutions than anybody else.
  • Help Seeker – Actively looks for sympathy by expressing feelings of inadequacy. Acts helpless, self deprecating and unable to contribute. For example, "I can't help you, I'm too confused and useless with this stuff."

Sabrina Cowden
Sabrina Cowden


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