The six relationship patterns that could be destroying your team’s performance

By Elloa Atkinson

Teams or organisations with high absenteeism or stress among staff, experiencing poor productivity or consistently missing targets, suffering from high staff turnover or an increase in staff complaints, might, after exhausting other avenues, decide to examine the deeper, unconscious dynamics at work. Even if your team is not at crisis point, you may be aware that your team is underperforming in relation to its potential and you might want to know what you can do to improve everyone’s performance.

While Bruce Tuckman’s four-stage “forming/storming/norming/performing” model, which outlines four stages of successful group development, has been written about extensively with reference to the workplace, Murray Bowen’s Family Systems Theory is less well known in this context. Bowen’s model offers a powerful lens through which to explore and understand the impact relationships have on a team’s performance. Certain relationship patterns might be having a detrimental or even destructive impact on the team’s performance.

Central to Bowen’s theory is the notion that human relationships consist of only six relationship patterns or dynamics. Unfortunately, when faced with relationship-based challenges—and Bowen’s theory posits that human challenges are fundamentally relational—most people do not know how to make the fundamental change that is required to evolve past the dynamic that generates the challenge the first place.

Self-aware teams are likely to be high performing teams. Therefore, the more a team can become conscious of how these universal patterns are playing out, the more conscious the team can become.


Triangles are the most fundamental of human relationship patterns. The human dyad is unstable and insular—sooner or later, a third party will be brought in to create balance. Triangulation is natural and inevitable; it would be impossible to run businesses without speaking about third parties. Triangulation becomes unhealthy, however, when it descends into gossiping, creating factions or sub-groups, talking behind coworkers’ or leaders’ backs, or scapegoating and blaming certain people when tensions run high or mistakes are made.

High performers take responsibility for how they are triangulating and “de-triangle” whenever possible, refusing to engage in gossip, backstabbing, collusion or ganging up on a colleague, © Elloa Atkinson 2016 choosing instead to work out any personal or professional upsets with the person or people involved directly.


Conflict is a necessary and even healthy part of the process of group formation; it is part of the process of team members sorting out where their place is. When conflict becomes an engendered pattern in a team, however, it can cause huge damage to the wellbeing, rapport and sense of security and trustworthiness among team members—without which a team will struggle to do excellent work. Chronic conflict creates a blame culture characterised by an atmosphere of distrust, full of accusations, ego-driven competitiveness, insults, intense clashes between personalities and even, in extreme cases, abuse.

As damaging as conflict is, it often points to deeper relationship issues; the topics being argued over are really a diversion away from the deeper interpersonal struggles that may be playing out between two or more people who fundamentally may clash. Resolving the conflict on the level of the topic is a temporary solution at best. Real resolution will come only when the personalities involved come to terms with their differences and operate from a “principles before personalities” viewpoint. Clarity on one’s individual values and a shared vested interested in the team or company values can be invaluable here.

Overfunctioning and Underfunctioning

Each person in a team is ultimately 100% responsible for their contribution to the relationship and the team. Most of us however have not learned how to operate only within our 100%, either underperforming (underfunctioning) or working beyond the scope of what they are responsible for (overfunctioning). Some of this may relate to the role one played in their family of origin. For example, eldest children typically overfunction whereas youngest children may have been ‘babied’ and may underfunction in adulthood.

A low performing team will have poor distribution of tasks among members, with the bulk of work being done by a small number of people. This is a classic indicator of overfunctioning and underfunctioning in action. Tackling these two dynamics must occur in tandem; the challenge for overfunctioners is to relinquish control and responsibility to the underfunctioning team member; the underfunctioner’s challenge is to step fully into their role, acting as they would if they knew that they were resourceful, capable and had valuable skills.

Distancing © Elloa Atkinson 2016

A classic pattern that is typically associated with romantic relationships, distancing nevertheless plays out in professional relationships too. It is often so prevalent that it is seen as normal and even healthy. If distancing is at play in your team, you might feel that despite working under the same roof (perhaps even for years) you don’t really know your colleagues. There may be more than one proverbial elephant in the room, topics that you know you simply cannot speak about.

Colleagues who are persistently unreachable or non-communicative, team conversation that does not include personal matters, an inability to relate between team members, or a prevalence of worksaholism in the team or organisation all point to distancing.

Distancing is often a way of avoiding dealing with some of the stickier interpersonal issues between team members. Distance prevents meaningful contact from occurring, which in turn prevents the kind of collaborative, creative thinking that occurs best within an open, creative, trusting environment. Most issues within a team are communication issues and may require some hard questions to be asked and one or more courageous conversations where each person aims to be personally accountable.


Another classic Hollywood-esque relationship pattern, cocooning is what it says it is: two people (typically) create a private and personal cocoon where they experience a strong sense of “us” which inevitably generates a “them.” Inside the cocoon, the parties may feel that it is “us against the world.”

In the workplace, this can manifest in the form of teams who are insulated or isolated, with a sense of separation and even alienation from each other. The overall impact on a company or organisation is, needless to say, damaging. While a sense of connectedness is powerful, cocooning can easily prevent employees from experiencing being part of a cohesive whole.


The most extreme of the relationship patterns, cutoff is the total, often final severing of a relationship and the subsequent non-functioning of that relationship. It is an attempt to manage the extreme tension or intensity that a given relationship may trigger. If this happens within a team, the impact on the ease, rapport and sense of openness within a team can be devastating, as the two parties engaged in cut off will blatantly ignore and refuse to acknowledge each other, even with a third party mediating and creating a triangle for them to communicate within. © Elloa Atkinson 2016

Cutoff may occur when a disgraced employee or executive is fired. The subtle message communicated to the remaining employees is that mentioning the person or their legacy is prohibited, which leaves people walking on eggshells, increasing the amount of tension and anxiety in the organisation and preventing the team from evolving and learning from previous mistakes. Unfortunately, history in these cases may tend to repeat itself because the lessons required for the team to evolve were not learnt but were suppressed, ignored or denied—literally, cut off. Working to understand one’s personal history of distancing and cutoff and how these have translated into the workplace can help an individual to depersonalise any current upsets and may motivate them to re-engage with a colleague they have cut off from.


These six relationship patterns have multiple facets warrant further study and discussion. Working to identify which specific patterns are playing out in your team is a beginning step and one which will greatly serve your employees, improving their morale and supporting the overall goal and mission of your team and the wider organisation.

Awareness and personal accountability are the key tools that support individuals and teams to move from dysfunction to high performance regardless of the pattern at work. Change occurring on the systemic level always begins with one individual becoming aware of their own contribution and taking principled, intelligent steps to change that contribution for the better.


Extraordinary Relationships: A New Way of Thinking About Human Interactions, R. Gilbert (1992),

Wiley: New York © Elloa Atkinson 2016

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