5 Dysfunctions of a teamIn my recent posts Quality Circles-Improving the Improvement System and 13 Simple Steps to Implementing Quality Circles I wrote about the importance of the operational team and their focus on solving problems. For this to be effective it is essential that the team is functional and able to work effectively together. In this post, I want to highlight why your team may not be performing at its best.

As a Workplace Professional, you are likely to be the leader of at least one team if not several. The effort involved in creating a fully functional and cohesive group is one of your more important ‘non-facilities’ related functions. As a leader, you need to be able to create a team which is a powerful point of differentiation.

Teams that function well avoid wasting time talking about the wrong issues. They are a well-oiled machine that exhibits a high level of buy-in from all members. This enables them to make higher quality decisions and accomplish more in less time with less distraction and frustration. High functioning teams are exciting and engaging and are less likely to experience the loss of critical team members.

Several times in my career, I have had to step in and lead previously dysfunctional teams. Successful teamwork is not about mastering subtle or sophisticated theories but rather about being authentic and embracing increased levels of discipline and persistence. This does not mean being authoritarian. Ironically great teams succeed because they are exceedingly human. By acknowledging the imperfections of their humanity, members of functional groups overcome some of the natural tendencies that make teamwork so elusive.


“No matter how brilliant individuals may be, when they come together they always get better results. Teamwork is better because it compensates for individual weaknesses and creates a mastermind outside of the individual.” Ray Laferla

Counterintuitively it is often better to focus on what not to do, rather than confusing yourself with the plethora of leadership advice that is freely available. One of the best resources available is the book 5 Dysfunctions of a Team by veteran author Patrick Lencioni. The book is a New York Times bestseller and has sold over 1 million copies worldwide. Lencioni has taken an interesting approach in addressing this common topic by authoring the book as a business fable. I read a lot but I will admit to being put off buying initially by a manufactured storyline. However, by structuring this as a fictional account Lencioni constructs a powerful and engaging story that is both believable and highly instructive.

The 5 Dysfunctions

How do you know if you have a dysfunctional team? In order to address the potential dysfunction of your team and to engage in the improvement process, you need to understand the level of dysfunction you’re facing. To do this ask yourself the following questions;

  • Do team members openly and readily disclose their opinions?
  • Are team meetings compelling and productive?
  • Does the team come to decisions quickly and avoid getting bogged down by consensus?
  • Do team members confront one another about their shortcomings?
  • Do team members sacrifice their own interests for the good of the team?

Lencioni reveals the five dysfunctions which go to the very heart of why teams, even the best ones, often struggle. He outlines a powerful model together with actionable steps that can be used to overcome these common hurdles and build a cohesive and effective team.

By Illustrating the model as dysfunctions it is clear to the Leader what behaviour to avoid but similar in concept to Maslow’s hierarchy, Lencioni bases his model on a pyramid of dysfunctions that a team should overcome step by step working from the bottom to the top, at which point you should be a productive and high-performing team.

5 dysfunctions of a team

1. Absence of Trust

The fear of being vulnerable prevents building trust within the team. Click To Tweet

To ascend the pyramid of dysfunctions we must combat each one in turn. One of the most important dysfunctions within a team is a lack of trust. The team members must have a stable foundation of trust to build upon to achieve their goals. Without trust within the team, there can be little hope of ever becoming functional and effective.

An absence of trust is at fault when team members are reluctant to be vulnerable with one another and are unwilling to admit their mistakes, weaknesses or need for help. Without a certain comfort level among team members, a foundation of trust is impossible. When Team Members are mistrustful of each other, the focus is on back-stabbing, internal politics and self-serving individual interests.

If team members do not trust each other, they will not venture opinions and ideas. Trust is also about “do I trust my teammates enough, to be honest, and potentially reveal my weaknesses.”

Costs of a lack of trust:

A lack of trust is, ironically, often caused by three commonly sought-after values,

  • Ambition
  • Competitiveness
  • Power

What is needed in effective teamwork is cooperation rather than competitiveness.  The collaboration that leads to a focus on innovation and serving the customer rather than internal competition. Excellence should be sought over ambition where the team players should strive to be the best they can be, rather than the best in the organisation. Lastly, the individuals in the team should seek to exert influence instead of power, by having integrity and being someone that the others can trust.

Overcoming a lack of trust:

Ineffective teams, waste inordinate amounts of time and energy managing their behaviours and interactions within the group. They are reluctant to take risks or help their colleagues. As a result, morale is often quite low and turnover in the team is high. Overcoming this debilitation is not a quick win, but without doing so, the team is doomed to never progressing.

Much like healing, time is an important factor when asking team members to be vulnerable enough to trust their colleagues with their own weaknesses. This is particularly so when this may involve individuals from different levels of the organisation or competitors outside of the team environment. Building trust requires a high degree of shared experience over time and multiple instances of follow-through to gain credibility. Both recognition and in-depth understanding of the contributions that each team member makes will go a long way to engendering trust within the team.

Dysfunction 1 - Absence of Trust

Members of a team with an absence of trust:Members of trusting teams:
Conceal their weaknesses and mistakes from one anotherAdmit weaknesses and mistakes
Hesitate to ask for help or provide constructive feedbackAsk for help
Take risks in offering feedback and assistance
Hesitate to offer help outside their own areas of responsibilityAccept questions and input about their areas of responsibility
Jump to conclusions about the intentions and aptitudes of others without attempting to clarify themGive one another the benefit of the doubt before arriving at a negative conclusion
Fail to recognise and tap into one another’s skills and experiencesAppreciate and tap into one another’s skills and experience
Waste time and energy managing their behaviours for effectFocus time and energy on important issues, not politics
Hold grudgesOffer and accept apologies without hesitation
Dread meetings and find reasons to avoid spending time togetherLook forward to meetings and other opportunities to work as a group

2. Fear of Conflict

“The desire to preserve artificial harmony stifles the occurrence of productive, ideological conflict.”

The idea of healthy conflict is for some people, one of the hardest dysfunctions to overcome. Once the team have trust, it is good for team members to debate the merits of an approach or ideas suggested by other members. Healthy, positive conflict helps drive better ideas and equally importantly, it enables the team members to commit to an activity.

Agreement by consensus is never normally an achievable or desirable thing in a team environment. Good teamwork should avoid group-think and Lencioni reinforces the notion that the majority of people will buy-in to an idea they don’t agree with if they have been involved in the debate and their point of view has been heard and discussed.

For the team to be able to engage in constructive conflict one can begin to see how important it is to build from the base of the pyramid and to establish trust within the team. Teams that are lacking in trust are incapable of engaging in unfiltered, passionate debate about key issues. This causes situations where team conflict can easily turn into thinly veiled criticisms and back channel comments. In a work setting where team members do not openly air their opinions, inferior decisions are the result.

Teamwork requires collaboration but this may mean that different people will come into conflict over ideas. If an absence of trust is present, the Team will avoid conflict and choose simply to rubber­stamp any suggestion, particularly if it comes from the leadership. If trust is established, the team will understand that conflict is normal, and will become willing to express and accept divergent views.


Conflict is considered taboo at work. People spend time and energy trying to avoid the passionate debate that is essential to any great team. There is a distinct difference between productive ideological conflict and destructive fighting and interpersonal politics.

Ideological conflict is limited to concepts and ideas and avoids personality-focused, mean-spirited attacks. Behind this lays a clear purpose which is to produce the best possible solution in the shortest time. Ideological conflict may demonstrate passion, emotion, and frustration that others may wrongly see as counter-productive even destructive but healthy conflict is a time saver as teams that avoid conflict revisit issues again and again without resolution.

In order to overcome a fear of conflict within the team, all members need to acknowledge that constructive conflict is productive and that many teams have a tendency to avoid it. The team needs to acknowledge that there will be some discomfort during the process and that the costs of avoiding conflict end up encouraging a dangerous tension within the team. When the debate isn’t open, teams can turn to backstabbing and personal attacks that are often more harmful than a heated argument over issues.

Dysfunction 2 - Fear of Conflict

Teams that fear conflict:Teams that engage in conflict:
Have boring meetingsHave lively, interesting meetings
Create environments where back-channel politics and personal attacks thriveMinimize politics
Ignore controversial topics that are critical to team successPut critical topics on the table for discussion
Fail to tap into all the opinions and perspectives of team membersExtract and exploit the ideas of all team members
Waste time and energy with posturing and interpersonal risk managementSolve real problems quickly

3. Lack of Commitment

The lack of buy-in prevents team members from making decisions they will stick to. Click To Tweet

Commitment from a team (or individual) is based on trust and conflict; both of which enable the individuals to buy-in to the end goal and make the commitment required. Lack of trust and conflict will see team members taking on a passive-aggressive role and artificially agreeing with the team’s direction but lacking any real level of commitment.

Without conflict, it is difficult for team members to commit to decisions, creating an environment where ambiguity prevails. Lack of direction and commitment can make employees, particularly star employees, disgruntled.

Just as team members need to trust each other, if the team is to work well together, so they must be committed to the team and to their stated objectives. Team leaders must ensure that everyone buys into the team’s core values, mission, vision and objectives.

As a team leader you must first ‘Talk the Talk’  then you must be seen to ‘Walk the Talk’. Without the team experiencing both of these actions you will find it impossible to ‘Run the Talk’ and being able to engage all Team members in setting up the team’s strategic decisions and the measures.

Definition of commitment:

In a team, commitment is a function of two things: clarity and buy-in. Great teams make clear and timely decisions and move forward with complete buy-in from every member of the team, even those who voted against the decision.

They leave the meetings confident that no one on the team is quietly harbouring doubts about whether to support the actions agreed upon.

Causes of lack of commitment:

There are two main causes for a lack of commitment that each team leader needs to be wary of, the desire for consensus and the need for certainty. Great teams understand the danger of seeking consensus and find ways to achieve buy-in even when a unanimous agreement is impossible. They understand that reasonable human beings do not need to get their way in order to support a decision, but only need to know that their opinions have been heard and considered. When there is an impasse, the leader of the team is allowed to make the call.

Dysfunction 3 - Lack of Commitment

A team that fails to commitA team that commits:
Creates ambiguity among the team about direction and prioritiesCreates clarity around direction and priorities
Aligns the entire team around common objectives
Watches windows of opportunity close due to excessive analysis and unnecessary delayTakes advantage of opportunities before competitors do
Breeds lack of confidence and fear of failureDevelops an ability to learn from mistakes
Revisits discussion and decisions again and againMoves forward without hesitation
Changes direction without hesitation or guilt
Encourages second-guessing among team membersAccepts the word of their teammates

4. Avoidance of Accountability

“The need to avoid interpersonal discomfort prevents team members from holding one another accountable for their behaviours and performance.”

Everyone in the team should be held accountable for their involvement in meeting the goals. Trust, healthy conflict and commitment are enablers to this accountability. Importantly, however, this accountability is to all members of the team, not merely the leadership.

When teams don’t commit to a clear plan of action, even the most focused and driven individuals hesitate to call their peers on actions and behaviours that may seem counterproductive to the overall good of the team. Members who are mistrustful, avoid conflict and lack commitment will avoid being accountable for their actions.

Typically these behaviours will involve the shifting of blame when things go wrong. Team members need to be given the authority and responsibility to achieve the agreed outcome. When these outcomes are not met team members must hold each other accountable and not allow the team member concerned to get away with sub-standard performance.

Definition of Accountability

It refers to a willingness of team members to call their peers on performance and issues that might hurt the team. The essence of this dysfunction is the unwillingness of team members to tolerate the interpersonal discomfort that accompanies calling a peer on his or her behaviour and the more general tendency to avoid difficult conversations.

Team members with strong personal relationships hesitate to hold on as team members start to resent each other for not living up to expectations and letting the standards erode accountability because they fear jeopardising the relationship. Ironically this causes the relationship to deteriorate even further.

Overcoming lack of accountability:

Peer pressure. This avoids excessive bureaucracy around performance management. There is nothing like the fear of letting down respected teammates to motivate people to improve their performance.

Dysfunction 4 - Avoidance of Accountability

A team that avoids accountability:A team that holds one another accountable:
Creates resentment among team members who have different standards of performanceEnsures that poor performers feel pressure to improve
Establishes respect among team members who are held to the same high standards
Encourages mediocrityIdentifies potential problems quickly by questioning one another’s approaches without hesitation
Misses deadlines and key deliverablesAvoids excessive bureaucracy around performance management and corrective action
Places an undue burden on the team leader as the sole source of disciplineTeam members must hold each other accountable for the individual’s accountability.

5. Inattention to Results

The pursuit of individual goals erodes the focus on collective success. Click To Tweet

Whilst it is still acceptable for people to strive for personal gain and status, each team member must put the team’s goals first in all cases. Where these conflict, the personal goals should be discarded for the good of the team. A successful team should always reap personal rewards for the members of the team due to the very nature of the team’s progress and success.

Team members naturally tend to put their own needs (ego, career development, recognition, etc.) ahead of the collective goals of the team when individuals aren’t held accountable. If a team has lost sight of the need for achievement, the business ultimately suffers. If team members do not know what is expected of them they will avoid accountability, and will not pay any attention to results.

Performance outputs are required to specify the outcomes expected from the team. Results that need to be attended to do not just relate to financial results or operational output such as SLA’s but rather to all aspects of the balanced scorecard. As with all performance measures, these should be few, unambiguous, objectively measurable and well known by all members of the team.

Overcoming inattention to results:

Many teams are simply not results focused. They merely exist or survive. No amount of trust, conflict, commitment or accountability can compensate for a lack of a desire to win or be successful by any measurable standard. Make results clear, and reward only those behaviours and actions that contribute to those results.

Dysfunction 5 - Inattention to Results

A team not focused on results:A team that focuses on results:
Stagnates / fails to growGrows and becomes able to achieve greater results
Rarely defeats competitorsEnjoys success and suffers failure acutely
Loses achievement-orientated employeesRetains achievement orientated employees
Encourages team members to focus on their own careers and individual goalsMinimizes individualistic behaviour
Benefits from individuals who subjugate their own goals / interests for the good of the team
Is easily distractedAvoids distractions

“A team that is not focused, stagnates, is not competitive, loses quality staff and is easily distracted, Ray Laferla.”

This week’s question; Teamwork is critical to modern collaborative working, how do you believe these five dysfunctions can help you in the management of your team?