Emma Broomfield

Three places where dysfunction shows up within an elected council

What does "dysfunction" mean?

The words “dysfunction” and “toxic” are often bandied about when describing a team or workplace that is not performing well or in the case of an elected council, one that is failing to meet the expectations of the community. Very often these words are used from a subjective point of view and as a label to describe a series of behaviours that together are interfering with the organisation’s capacity to achieve outcomes.

Similar to the word “respect”, these descriptors can mean different things to different people. With that in mind, it can be helpful to take a moment to reflect on what “dysfunction” means from an objective point of view and then reflect on where dysfunction is likely to show up within a local council.

A framework for understanding dysfunction

The “Five Dysfunctions of a Team” is a model developed by Patrick Lencioni, a leadership expert and speaker, to describe the common pitfalls that teams face in their effort to work together effectively. These five levels are often evident within local councils and can manifest in different ways in relationships between councillors and with council staff, as well as with the community.

The five dysfunctions are:

Absence of trust

There is a lack of trust in each other, causing people to hold back their opinions, ideas, and constructive criticism.

Fear of conflict

People avoid healthy conflict and lack open and honest discussions, leading to shallow commitment and decisions.

Lack of commitment

There is a lack of clear understanding of individual and collective goals, leading to confusion, mixed priorities, and a lack of accountability.

Avoidance of accountability

People are reluctant to hold each other accountable, leading to a lack of follow-through and poor performance.

 Inattention to results

People prioritise individual goals and personal agendas over collective goals and results, leading to a lack of progress.
Lencioni’s model offers a simple, yet powerful framework for understanding the underlying dynamics that may prevent an elected council from functioning at its highest level. It also provides a roadmap for overcoming these dysfunctions which we discuss more below.

Three places where dysfunction is likely to show up

The public inquiry report into Wingecarribee Shire Council provides useful insights into the types of specific behaviours that tend to be evident in a council that has become dysfunctional or is showing early signs of dysfunction. The inquiry ultimately led to the dismissal of the elected council, with the local community now waiting until 2024 to re-elect its local representatives. Broadly, there are three areas where dysfunction tends to rear its ugly head.

1.  Relationships between councillors

Very often in a dysfunctional council there has been a break down in relationships within the elected council. That is between the councillors. As noted by Lencioni, trust is the cornerstone of any high performing team. And where this has broken down, then it will impact the effectiveness of the team and the organisation.

From our experience, a breakdown in trust is often a result of lingering animosity from the campaign period. It can also arise due to interpersonal differences in communication and leadership styles, and the values that each councillor brings to the decision making table.
A lack of trust between councillors can manifest itself in a number of different ways. On the one hand, the behaviours can be overt. For example, it can show up in inefficient council meetings with time being taken up with arguments about procedural matters, political point scoring and councillors battling out personal differences. It can show up online with councillors making personal attacks about each other or openly undermining council decisions that they don’t agree with. It can show up in aggressive or overbearing emails behind the scenes or a lack of socialising (e.g. after Council meetings) or in allegations of bullying and harassment through Code of Conduct complaints.

Other symptoms of dysfunction are not always so overt. Sometimes a lack of dissent or debate in the Chamber can be a sign that councillors are avoiding conflict or avoiding holding each other to account for their behaviour. This can be an artificial harmony of sorts – where all looks good to those outside, but there is trouble brewing beneath the surface.

Some simple but powerful antidotes to build trust between councillors include:
  • Find common ground - Focusing on your common purpose to serve your community is an easy one, but delve a little deeper and see if you share common passions or values
  • Discover the human behind the role – Find ways to connect with each other outside formal meetings and make time to get to know each other
  • Connect with each other – Pay attention to others who may be quiet in meetings, notice if other councillors are consistently not turning up to social events and take action to find out why

2. Relationships between the elected council and council staff

Another place where dysfunction shows up is in the relationships between the governing body and council staff. Similar to relationships within the elected body, the root cause of this breakdown is normally a lack of trust. Typically, before being elected, councillors are on the outside and can see a great need for change in how council communicates with the community. There can be a level of frustration that is directed at council staff that carries over into civic office, with some councillors never really understanding they are all on one team.

When relationships between councillors and staff break down, it can seriously impact the ability of the organisation to effectively fulfil its statutory obligations, particularly with respect to providing a safe workplace for staff. It can also make the organisation turn inward, instead of outward.

Again, a breakdown in relationships between the governing body can manifest itself in a number of ways. Like relationships between councillors, it can be overt with a lack of respect shown towards staff in the Chamber through direct or indirect criticism. It could include negative comments made by councillors about council staff on social media or councillors blatantly disregarding the rules around staff interactions and interfering in operational matters.

It is likely to show up as low staff morale in staff surveys, and with a high turn-over of staff, particularly at the executive level. It can also impact how council staff treat councillors. For example, Council staff showing favouritism towards some councillors. Or council staff limiting the advice they provide to the governing body due to concerns about being criticised for giving professional advice.

Some simple but powerful antidotes to build trust in this space include:
  • Role model respectful interactions – councillors words and action in the Chamber or in the tone of their emails really do matter. Be mindful of what you say can and how you say it.
  • Stay in your lane – respect the gatekeeper role of the General Manager and the boundaries and rules that exist around your interactions with council staff.
  • Practice empathy – think about how the issue might be impacting council staff and what you might do if you were in that position. Consider what staff may have already done to solve the issue.

3. Loss of community confidence in council

The final tell-tale sign of dysfunction is the loss of confidence by the community in a council’s ability to effectively govern and lead on its behalf. In local government, there is always a natural tension between councils and their communities. A healthy level of scepticism and negativity is par for the course. And we know, in the past year, public trust in government has taken a dive and the default for many citizens is distrust in political leadership.

Distrust tips into dysfunction when there is evidence of an openly adversarial relationship between the elected council and the community. The community no longer feels heard. And in reality, some councillors have stopped listening. This can manifest in rude email correspondence from councillors to community members (and vice versa), or by councillors personally attacking the community on social media or in the Chamber. Councillors might also start labelling the community as naysayers or the noisy minority, with the views of the community being reflected in poor community satisfaction survey results.

It is not always possible to manage the views your community has about your council, but a few of things will help bridge the divide:
  • Do what you say you will – have a clear policy which sets out what the community can expect in terms of the provision of information and opportunities for input and providing reasons for decisions (particularly where the outcome is different to community feedback).
  • Keep your ears and heart open – listening in the face of constant criticism takes a lot of patience and resolve. Its a skill that needs to be actively practised.
  • Seek out opinions that are different to your own – find people in your community who sit on the other side of the fence and take time to understand their perspective and concerns.
Summing up, dysfunction can manifest itself in different ways and different places. If you are experiencing signs of dysfunctional behaviour within your elected council it can be tricky to know what to do. This year our in our 5 part webinar series we will be exploring dysfunction from multiple angles so councillors can be fully informed and up-skilled to keep themselves and the elected group on track to successful outcome delivery for their communities. 

Join our webinar series!
How to address dysfunction in your council

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