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The Five Dysfunctions of a Team

The Five Dysfunctions of a Team Summary
Management & Leadership and Corporate Culture & Communication

This microbook is a summary/original review based on the book: The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable

Available for: Read online, read in our mobile apps for iPhone/Android and send in PDF/EPUB/MOBI to Amazon Kindle.

ISBN: 0787960756

Publisher: Jossey-Bass

Also available in audiobook

Summary

You can’t have a winning football team if you merely build it around exceptional individuals. A team of average players with a good strategy and the proper teamwork mentality will probably beat your team 9 times out of 10. 

If you are a manager and you wonder why, then you should definitely give “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team” a go. A leadership business fable that follows the day-to-day challenges and triumphs of the fictional company DecisionTech, Patrick Lencioni’s classic uses the story to explore the fundamentals of great teamwork. And so are we.

So, get ready to learn which are the five most common dysfunctions of a team and prepare to discover how you can turn your team from a haphazard mixture of lone wolves into a structured results-oriented unit!

Dysfunction No. 1: absence of trust

Absence of trust is the godmother of all other dysfunctions. Without trust, teamwork is almost impossible. Its root is the inability and unwillingness of employees to be vulnerable and open to each other about their weaknesses and mistakes. Teams that share personal insights and experiences have consistently proven more productive and more satisfied with where they are in life. On the other hand, the morale on distrusting teams is usually quite low, and unwanted turnover – quite high.

Lencioni defines trust as “the confidence among team members that their peers’ intentions are good, and that there is no reason to be protective or careful around the group.” As simple as it might sound, it’s actually pretty difficult to achieve. Blame it on our nature: we tend to hide our interpersonal shortcomings and skill deficiencies almost by instinct.

“Achieving vulnerability-based trust is difficult,” Lencioni elucidates further, “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.”

To help your employees open up, you, the leader, should be the first one to demonstrate vulnerability. Admit to your mistakes. Contrary to popular belief, you won’t lose face for this – actually, it will create the impression of a more confident and benevolent leader, giving you the freedom to take more risks, while simultaneously inspiring a culture of trust, respect, and accountability. And even though vulnerability-based trust is not something that can be achieved overnight, the following two tools should help you speed up the process a bit:

  • Personal histories exercise. Have all of your team members answer a short list of rather innocuous questions about themselves, such as favorite hobbies, worst job experience, or number of siblings. This will help them know each other better – which is the first step toward breaking down barriers.
  • Team effectiveness exercise. Have all team members identify “the single most important contribution that each of their peers makes to the team, as well as the one area that they must either improve upon or eliminate for the good of the team.” Even though a bit riskier, this exercise can both build trust and contribute to better cohesion.

Dysfunction No. 2: fear of conflict

By building trust, teams make conflict possible. And, in essence, conflict is nothing bad. In fact, if regulated properly, it’s usually the most productive aspect of teamwork. Artificial harmony does nobody any good. On the contrary: unbearable tension, boring meetings, and back-channel office politics feed upon it! All teams are instinctually aware that disagreements are the only way to progress. However, only teams built on vulnerability-based trust can rest assured that saying something that may otherwise sound critical or destructive will not be punished – or even frowned upon.

Wanting to protect team members from harm, leaders inadvertently tend to contribute to this second dysfunction. By encouraging “premature interruption of disagreements,” they actually prevent team members from “developing coping skills for dealing with conflict themselves,” and put off teams from overcoming the fear of conflict in a more natural way. Therefore, leaders must start acting in a more laissez-faire manner, even if that means losing control for a short time. The road to lively meetings that put critical topics on the table for discussion and solve real issues starts with passionate ideological disputes. 

Of course, a leader must be careful not to allow these disputes to swerve off the road. Unfortunately, it is easy for an ideological conflict (limited to ideas and concept) to regress into “personality-focused, mean-spirited attacks.” To stop this and make sure that conflicts will be productive, use the following two methods:

  • Mining. Assign a team member the role of a “conflict miner” – namely, a person responsible for extracting buried disagreements within the team in a cautious, objective manner. Be careful in your selection: the miner must be a respected member of the team with “the courage and confidence to call out sensitive issues.” Otherwise, mining can be very damaging to team cohesion.
  • Real-time permission. Whenever a conflict arises, try to recognize the moment when an ideological disagreement tends to degenerate into a personal attack, interrupt the clash, and let participants know that ideological conflicts are necessary. Teach the team members to do the same.

Dysfunction No. 3: lack of commitment

Of course, if every team member has their opinion heard and discussed through – as it should transpire in regulated ideological disputes – agreeing to the final decision shouldn’t be such a big problem for anyone. Psychologists have demonstrated, time and again, that most people only need to have their opinions considered. Thus, overcoming the fear of conflict is a necessary prerequisite to dealing with the third most common dysfunction of a team: lack of commitment.

Teams that fail to commit to a cause are teams that incessantly seek consensus and certainty. In reality, there is rarely any assurance whether a future-related decision reached by a team is the right one. However, any decision is better than no decision – and this is what great teams know very well. That’s why they can easily unite behind decisions even in the face of uncertainty and even if not all members agree that the preferred plan of action is the right one. It’s enough that the strategy is clearly defined and the disapproval of the contraries is recognized by all members. Great teams are never about complete agreement – but about complete buy-in even from those that are against a particular resolution.

Leaders are no exception. They should be more comfortable than anyone on the team with agreeing to a decision they are not in favor of. And they should always encourage closure in the face of ambiguity and insecurity, and avoid putting certainty and consensus before the need for bold and urgent action. The following two tools should help them achieve this:

  • Deadlines. Setting clear deadlines for deciding and honoring decisions  “with discipline is rigidity” is the oldest and, arguably, most effective form of dealing with lack of commitment.
  • Contingency and worst-case scenario analysis. Most of the time, team members refuse to buy in because of fear they might be contributing to a disastrous outcome. So, set aside a few hours to go over the worst-case scenario for a decision and discuss potential contingency plans. Since, in most cases, the cost of an incorrect decision doesn’t have apocalyptic proportions, this exercise should allay the fears of the most frightened and allow them to commit to the decision they might think is wrong.

Dysfunction No. 4: avoidance of accountability

It’s difficult to hold someone accountable for something they never bought in to, or something never made clear. Teams should be more comfortable calling each other on their behaviors and actions when the plan of action is clear and when everyone’s voice is heard. And that is of vital importance since avoidance of accountability is the fourth dysfunction of a team.

Usually, team members refuse to hold one another accountable because of fear they might hence jeopardize personal relationships. Ironically, this is actually what leads to the relationships’ deterioration, because not calling out on a close colleague’s shortcomings reflects badly in the eyes of other team members, indirectly building up tension and resentment toward your friend. 

According to Lencioni, “as politically incorrect as it sounds, the most effective and efficient means of maintaining high standards of performance on a team is peer pressure. […] More than any policy or system, there is nothing like the fear of letting down respected teammates that motivates people to improve their performance.” Therefore, as a leader, you must encourage peer pressure, and fortunately, there are a few easy ways to do this:

  • Publication of goods and standards. Ambiguity is the greatest enemy of accountability. Consequently, transparency is its best friend. So, before executing any project, be clear with your instructions. Set clear goals, publicly disseminate the tasks between the team members, and make sure that everyone knows who needs to deliver what by the end of the deadline. You can even print this out and hang it in a visible place.
  • Team rewards. Instead of giving awards for individual performance, introduce team awards. This should wake up team members to the fact that, for best results, they must function as a unit rather than as a group of individuals competing against each other. 

Dysfunction No. 5: inattention to results

Teams that don’t function as coherent units are unable, by definition, to care about collective results. And if lack of trust is the foundational dysfunction of teams, inattention to collective results is undoubtedly the ultimate one.

Unfortunately, most teams function as groups of individuals whose self-interests are beyond those of the team’s. True, self-preservation is an instinct – it’s not something that can be brushed off with lofty and sweet-sounding mission statements. However, it must be curbed toward the collective result, and it is the leader’s job to nudge the team members in the right direction. The leader can ensure that the team focuses its attention on collective results by making these results clear and by being selfless to the point of refusing recognition, reserving it for the result-oriented and most contributing members of the team:

  • Public declaration of results. One of our primal fears is the fear of public embarrassment. Use this to your benefit: to avoid shame, teams that are willing publicly to commit to a future victory are inclined to work more purposefully toward it.
  • Results-based rewards. Giving rewards to someone for doing their best in the absence of results may send a wrong message across the team. That’s why the awards must be both team-oriented and results-based.

Final Notes

One of the most influential business fables ever written, “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team” is a succinct, simple, and smart book on teamwork and organizational culture that clearly communicates important lessons via an engaging story. 

Highly recommended for managers and leaders everywhere.

12min Tip

Great teams are built on mutual trust and accountability, ideological disagreements, commitment to group decisions, and orientation toward results. Encourage them all.

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Who wrote the book?

Patrick Lencioni is an American author, consultant, and keynote speaker. He is the founder and president of The Table Group, a management counseling firm. One of the “10 new gurus you should know,” accordi... (Read more)