We’ve all seen teams that are terrible. Teams that fought and backstabbed. Teams where no one bought in to the vision of the company. Unfortunately, many of us have only seen these teams that are broken.

We haven’t seen teams that have constructive arguments and then align around the decision. We haven’t seen teams that trust each other and genuinely enjoy spending time together.

The goal of The Five Dysfunctions of a Team , by Patrick Lencioni, is to show us what a good team looks like. Lencioni’s business writing is not like most others. He wraps up his stories in a parable to illustrate the points he’s making.

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In this book he follows a startup that is suffering. They’ve moved the founder/CEO out of the leadership role and brought in a new CEO. Our new CEO is the one that brings the new model of team work to everyone through a set of weekend retreats with the leadership of the company.

As with other Lencioni books I’ve read, he ends the book with a wrap up of the principles that were getting taught by his characters in the book.

The 5 Dysfunctions of A Team Are:

  1. The Absence of Trust
  2. Fear of Conflict
  3. Lack of Commitment
  4. Avoidance of Accountability
  5. Inattention to Results

Each of these dysfunctions build on the others. Lencioni gives us a pyramid digram early in the book to illustrate this. Here is my reproduction of it:

Now, let’s dive in to the dysfunctions and see how they connect with each other so that we can start to build better teams.

Dysfunction 1: Absence of Trust

Teamwork starts with trust. Trust means that team members can talk to each other and trust that what they say won’t come back to harm them later.

Team members who are not genuinely open with one another about their mistakes and weaknesses make it impossible to build a foundation for trust.
Without this trust, you’ll have a team full of backbiting and everyone looking out for only themselves. They won’t care about what’s best for the company as a whole, they’ll fight for themselves. Even if that harms the goals of the company.

So, how does one achieve trust? Well it’s hard because we’ve mostly been taught that we’re in competition with everyone and that we need to step on others to move “up the ladder”.

Achieving vulnerability-based trust is difficult because in the course of career advancement and education, most successful people learn to be competitive with their peers, and protective of their reputations. It is a challenge for them to turn those instincts off for the good of a team, but that is exactly what is required.
Building the trust you want takes time. It takes shared experience. One of the best teams I worked with was a kayaking store. On top of working together every day, most of us spent the weekends on the rivers rescuing each other. We had a huge shared experience and lots of trust because we had all rescued each other. That meant at work, the trust continued. While we had a hierarchy, it was fairly fluid and everyone was ready to dive in to help each other no matter what your real job description was.

How does a team go about building trust? Unfortunately, vulnerability-based trust cannot be achieved overnight. It requires shared experiences over time, multiple instances of follow-through and credibility, and an in-depth understanding of the unique attributes of team members.
If you operate a remote company, that means you hold get together regularly. Not just once a year, but at least quarterly. Chip and Dan Heath echo this idea in The Power of Moments when they say:

Remote contact is perfectly suitable for day-to-day communication and collaboration. But a big moment needs to be shared in person. (No one dials in to a wedding or graduation, after all.) The presence of others turns abstract ideas into social reality. – The Power of Moments
You need to turn your team into a reality by shared experiences and interactions. The time you spend regularly meeting will mean that when you’re operating remotely you’re going to trust each other. Trusting each other will mean that they will have good conflict with each other and you want conflict because out of that is where you get the good ideas that will push the business forward.

Dysfunction 2: Fear Of Conflict

Teams that lack trust are incapable of engaging in unfiltered and passionate debate of ideas. Instead, they resort to veiled discussions and guarded comments.
Most of us have been on a team where 99% of what was going on in the room was never spoken. Where people disagreed, but wouldn’t say anything because they didn’t feel safe. Oh sure, later they’d feel free to let loose on whomever was around. They’d talk all about how they knew it was a bad idea.

Assuming we have trust in our teams, the next step is to kill the dim view so often taken of conflict. Far from being a bad thing, constructive conflict is a refinery for ideas. Good challenge means that our ideas are forced to hold up to rigorous debate. We are forced to produce numbers.

In this type of company, where conflict is considered healthy, we get to stop wasting time avoiding disagreement and instead embrace it.

Unfortunately, conflict is considered taboo in many situations, especially at work. And the higher you go up the management chain, the more you find people spending inordinate amounts of time and energy trying to avoid the kind of passionate debates that are essential to any great team.
By having good arguments we make decisions happen. We don’t waffle around issues wondering what on earth is going to happen and passively championing our point. We make a decision and move forward together because the whole team feels like their idea was heard.

Contrary to the notion that teams waste time and energy arguing, those that avoid conflict actually doom themselves to revisiting issues again and again without resolution.
Mark Manson echo’s this in The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F__k :

Without conflict, there can be no trust. Conflict exists to show us who is their for us unconditionally and who is just there for the benefits. No one trusts yes-men. – The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F__k
Manson actually takes the whole idea a bit further though as he feels we work to avoid any negative experiences. This is in part to the fake “good” life we see from so many on social media. Here’s how he says it:

Now here’s a problem: Our society today, through the wonders of consumer culture and hey-look-at-my-life-is-cooler-than-yours social media, has bred a whole generation of people who believe that having these negative experiences — anxiety, fear, guilt, etc. — is totally not okay. – The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F__k
That means that after you start building trust you need to get everyone on board with the idea that conflict is something that will happen, and it’s a good thing. If you don’t have some healthy conflict around the ideas you want to pursue, you’re leaving the best ones on the table.

With good conflict, you can move on to Dysfunction 3, a lack of commitment from your team to the decisions that have been made.

Dysfunction 3: Lack of Commitment

Without having aired their opinions in the course of passionate and open debate, team members rarely, if ever, buy in and commit to decisions, though they may feign agreement during meetings.
I’ve seen this with my kids. When we dictate something to them, it’s a fight. When they get a say in the decision and the outcomes, they buy in much more. Now they are kids, so it still takes some cajoling sometimes but much less if they were on board with the original decision making process.

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.
We also see this idea in Great at Work by Morten Hansen.

In teams that unite, team members commit to the decision taken (even if they disagree), and all work hard to implement the decision without second-guessing or undermining it. – Great at Work
Great at work calls this same idea fight then unite. That means we fight about an idea, and then we unite around the decision, even if we were on the other side.

The other big thing that comes from not fighting and uniting around a decision is lack of decision. We delay it because we never feel great about it and fall into the trap of perfection. No decision will be perfect. The best we can hope for is a good decision with the information we had at the time given the state of the business. Move forward with that decision and if you get new information look at it again.

With people united around a decision, we bring in our next dysfunction, Accountability. To bring accountability to your team end every meeting and off-site with an explicit list of what everyone is responsible for. Without this step you’ll often find that people were not clear about what they were in charge of.

Dysfunction 4: Avoidance Of Accountability

Without committing to a clear plan of action, even the most focused and driven people often hesitate to call their peers on actions and behaviors that seem counterproductive to the good of the team.
Who can really hold someone to account for something that they didn’t know? When I used to manage a climbing gym I’d find little things off in what our staff were doing sometimes. I’d always start with the assumption that they hadn’t been told and it was my fault that something was off. I’d always follow up with the statement that they had now been told so next time it was their fault.

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 behavior and the more general tendency to avoid difficult conversations.
I won’t quote Mark Manson again, but this lack of accountability goes back he his thoughts on avoiding anything that is negative. It is uncomfortable to tell someone they’re missing the mark, but that is part of the job you have to do if you want to have a successful team.

That means you must cut all ambiguity out of your goals. In Better Than Before , Gretchen Rubin tells us that if we want to achieve a habit we must cut out all ambiguity. If we are ambiguous then we’ll give ourselves an out and the habit won’t form.

Lencioni follows this same reasoning:

The enemy of accountability is ambiguity, and even when a team has initially committed to a plan or a set of behavioral standards, it is important to keep those agreements in the open so that no one can easily ignore them.
If we are ambiguous then it’s hard to focus on the results, because too many things were not clear.

Dysfunction 5: Inattention to Results

(In attention) occurs when team members put their individual needs (such as ego, career development, or recognition) or even the needs of their divisions above the collective goals of the team.
This starts to bring us full circle again as we looked back at lack of trust meaning that we looked to our own desires most and put them above the needs of the company.

If the whole company isn’t focused around the same results then they’ll look to their team and themselves only. What will make them the best they can be? What will cast them in the most favourable light? How can they get ahead?

Every good organization specifies what it plans to achieve in a given period, and these goals, more than the financial metrics that they drive, make up the majority of near-term, controllable results. So, while profit may be the ultimate measure of results for a corporation, the goals and objectives that executives set for themselves along the way constitute a more representative example of the results it strives for as a team.
What is the one metric that matters for the company? What is the one metric that matters for your team, that contributes to the overall metric for the company? Are you willing to put your metric on hold to make sure that the company achieves the one thing that matters?

Are you rewarding the type of behaviour that leads to the single metric that matters.

How does a team go about ensuring that its attention is focused on results? By making results clear, and rewarding only those behaviors and actions that contribute to those results.

Should I Read The Five Dysfunctions of a Team?

If you struggle reading business books because you find so many of them boring, then The Five Dysfunctions of a team is a great read. By showing you the dysfunctions first through a story, you get to see them in action. Sure sometimes the scenes feel a bit contrived, but they still get the point across.

Lencioni finishes the book with a summary of the dysfunctions followed by a set of questions to walk through with your team. If you’re tight on time, then you could skip to the end and get much of the information.

I think the story helps make the dysfunctions real though, so it will be more effort to keep them top of mind long term. The Five Dysfunctions of a team is a quick read, and yes if you deal with a team in any fashion, you should read it.

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Photo by: clement127