Why Most Teams Are Dysfunctional and How To Fix It (5 min read)

I’ve worked in so many teams over the years – sometimes as a team member and sometimes as the team leader. I’d love to say that these teams were super high-performing ones, but I’m afraid they were not.

How do I know this? Well, according to Patrick Lencioni, teams suffer from 5 dysfunctions: they lack trust, fear conflict, lack commitment to decisions, avoid holding each other to account and not paying attention to team results. In that light, I think most my teams have been dysfunctional even the ones I have lead. 

The importance of high-functioning teams

MIT’s Alex Pentland did a study that found that a team of high IQ individuals that were poor team players would consistently under-perfom a team of average IQ individuals that worked well as a team. Google even tried to get rid of managers and found chaos soon followed. They reinstated managers and found that managers could transform teams if they are a good coach, don’t micromanage, express interest in team members’ success and have a clear vision amongst other skills.

The 5 dysfunctions

But it’s Lencionis model that best describes how to make teams function well. The image above shows the 5 dysfunctions with the absence of trust at the base of the pyramid and inattention to team results at the apex. They are defined as follows:

  1. Absence of trust. This is the unwillingness to be vulnerable within the group. Individuals who are not open about their mistakes and weaknesses make it impossible to build a foundation of trust.
  2. Fear of conflict. The lack of trust naturally leads to everyone not engaging in unfiltered and passionate debate of ideas. Instead they resort to veiled discussions and cautious comments
  3. Lack of commitment. Without everyone’s honest opinions in the course of debates, team members will not commit to decisions, but will pretend agreement in meetings.
  4. Avoidance of accountability. Without commitment to plans, people will hesitate  to call their peers on actions and behaviours that are counterproductive to the team,
  5. Inattention to results. Without caring about the good performance of fellow team members, individuals will put their needs and success above the goals and success of the team.

And how the opposite looks and how to get there:

1. Trust one another.

Trust is the confidence among team members that their peers’ intentions are good and there is no reason to be protective around the group.

Trusting teams admit weaknesses, ask for help, give one another the benefit of the doubt before arriving at a negative conclusion, take risks in offering feedback, offer and accept apologies, look forward to working as a group. Vulnerability-Based trust cannot be achieved overnight.  It requires shared experiences over time. Some of the tools that can help:

  • sharing personal histories – number of siblings, hometown, challenges of childhood, hobbies etc
  • team effectiveness exercises – each  team member identifies a behaviour that helps the team, and one that hurts the team.
  • personality profiles – tests like the Myers-Briggs help everyone understand everyone understand the diversity of the team.
2. Engage in unfiltered conflict around ideas.

There is a difference between conflict around ideas and conflict around personalities. Both are conflicts that can have passion and emotion, but one is healthy and other is not.

Teams that engage in conflict have lively meetings, extract the ideas of all team members, solve real problems quickly, minimise politics, and put critical topics on the table for discussion. Some tools that can help:

  • mining – team members that avoid conflict can assume the role of “miner of conflict”, someone who extracts buried disagreements within the team. They must have courage to call out sensitive issues and force teams to work through them.
  • real-time permission – in  the process of mining, team members need to coach one another not to retreat from healthy debate. When seeing someone is uncomfortable with the discord, someone should remind them what they are doing is necessary
  • leaders should not over-protect team – the team leader needs to hold back from prematurely interrupting disagreements and let conflicts resolve naturally.
3. Commit to decisions and plans of action

The big causes of lack of commitment are the desire for consensus and the need for certainty. It is better to get everyone to have their opinions heard, disagree and commit than to wait for consensus. In the real world, critical decisions will only be made with imperfect information, and a decision is better than no decision.

A team that commits creates clarity around the direction and priorities, aligns the entire team around common objectives, developed an ability to learn from mistakes, takes advantage of opportunities before competitors, moves forwards without hesitation and changes direction without hesitation. Some tools that can help:

  • Cascading messages – at the end of staff meetings, a team should explicitly review decisions and agree what needs to be communicated to the rest of employees. This ensures that the staff in the meeting were on the same page, be clear what is meant to be confidential, and ensure the team is clearly aligned.
  • Deadlines – use clear deadlines for decisions to be made.
  • Contingency and worst scenario analysis – this helps overcome fears of the cost of poor decisions.
4. Hold one another accountable for delivering against those plans

One of the most effective means of maintaining high standards is peer pressure rather than relying on the team leader alone to hold everyone accountable.

A team that holds one another accountable ensures that poor performers feel pressure to improve, and identifies potential problems quickly by questioning one another’s approaches without hesitation. Some tools to help:

  • Publication of goals and standards – clarify public exactly what the team, needs to achieve, who needs to deliver what and everyone must behave to succeed.
  • Simple and regular progress reviews – team members should regularly communicate with one either verbally or in written form about they feel their teammates are doing against stated objectives and standards.
  • Team rewards – shift rewards away from individual performance to team achievement.
5. Focus on the achievement of collective results.

Two things distract from team results, team status and individual status. The former makes individuals complacent as they are happy enough to just be part of a high status team or institution. The latter makes individuals care about their own performance over their teams (a bit like being happy you scored a hat-trick but your team lost the match).

A team focused on collective results retains achievement-oriented employees, minimises individualistic behaviour, enjoys success and suffers failure acutely and benefits from individuals who subjugate their own interests for the good of the team. Some tools to help are:

  • Public declaration of results – this makes the team more likely to work with passion
  • Results-based rewards – this has to be done delicately but linking rewards to specific outcomes can help reduce negative politics.
It goes without saying the team leader has to embody all these traits more than anyone else.

I’m going to try to lead my teams in this way. Ask me in a year if it is has worked!



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