The five dysfunctions of a team

Written by , in category Agile & Scrum

30 March 2016

Why did I have to write this blogpost?

Not finance. Not strategy. Not technology. It is teamwork that remains the ultimate competitive advantage, both because it is so powerful and so rare.

This is the starting quote of a great book “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team” from Patrick Lencioni, and is something I can really relate to. But, don’t you also experience that exceptional teamwork is as elusive as ever, despite all the attention it has received over the years? And whether you manage a large executive staff or department, coach an agile team or even if you are merely a member of a team that needs improving, don’t you also experience that is hard to get to real teamwork?

That’s why I spend much time trying to figure out on how to do this better, along the way stumbling upon this book. To quote again:

Building a strong team is both possible and remarkably simple. But it is painfully difficult.

Some of what the book contains was already playing around in my head for a while, and probably in yours, but this book really helped to make underlying causes a lot more clear and explicit, like puzzle pieces falling into place. Building a strong team remains difficult, but reading this book brought me so many good ideas I simply had to write something about it.

The book ?

The cool thing is that the first part of book contains a fable, a fictitious story. The 5 dysfunctions are introduced in an easy to grasp manner and with clear motivation throughout the storyline.

The fable describes the challenges of a new CEO who is hired to save a high-tech startup that was very popular, but after 2 years in its existence seems to fail to deliver, despite having the best possible and probably best paid executive team in Silicon Valley. I will not tell to much about the fable, you’ll enjoy it more reading it yourself. But this story will definitely help me remember.

The second part of the book contains the theoretical discussion on the five dysfunctions, how they are related and possible ways to cope with them. This is where I want to focus on for the rest of this blogpost.

The 5 dysfunctions model?

As challenging as it is to build a cohesive team, the basic concepts of the model are simple.

The model starts from two critical truths observed by the author. First, genuine teamwork remains as elusive as ever. Second, achieving teamwork often fails because of five natural but dangerous pitfalls, called dysfunctions in the model.

The 5 dysfunctions model

Lets go into a bit more details on each dysfunction (from bottom to top):

  • The first dysfunction is an absence of trust amongst the team members. Trust is defined as the confidence amongst team members that their peer intentions are good, and that there is no reason to be protective or careful  around the group. A lack of trust comes down to an unwillingness to be vulnerable to one another, including e.g. not being genuinely open with one another about mistakes and weaknesses or hesitating to ask for help. The book coins it as ‘vulnerability based trust’, in contrast with a more standard based definition of trust that is the ability to predict a person’s behavior based on past experiences.
  • A lack of trust often sets the tone for the second dysfunction in a team, namely the fear of conflict. These teams cannot engage in unfiltered and passionate debate of ideas.
  • A lack of healthy conflict leads to a lack of commitment. Commitment is a function of two things: clarity and buy-in. Not only clarity is often a problem. Also, if people are guarded and do not have their say, they often silently disagree and do not buy in and commit to a decision, though they might even feign agreement during meetings. Being able to unite behind a decision (after a healthy amount of conflict) with a clear course of action, even if there is little assurance on the outcome, is essential to get to a great team.
  • Because of a lack of commitment, team members develop an avoidance of accountability. This dysfunction comes down to an unwillingness to tolerate the interpersonal discomfort of calling out a peer on his or her behavior, or the general tendency to avoid difficult conversations.  Accountability here does not mean being able to blame, shift liability, or something in this line. It means that members of great teams improve their relationships by holding one another accountable, thus demonstrating that they respect each other and provide a healthy amount of peer pressure for performance.
  • Without a culture of holding each other accountable, there an environment where inattention to results becomes the norm. This is when team members put their individual needs (ego, career, recognition, success of own team) above the collective goals. These teams are simply not result focused.

 

If this is not clear yet, consider what could be the reverse:

  • The team members really trust each other.
  • They engage in unfiltered debate, searching for the best solution.
  • They commit to decisions and plans.
  • And keep each other accountable.
  • They focus on achieving the collective results.

What a great team this would be!

 

Why should you know this model?

The first reason is the simplicity of the model simplifies applying this in practice. The model is easy to remember and sticks in your head. This makes it easier to recognize problems. And everybody knows that really understanding the problem brings you already a long way towards solving it.

The book itself also contains tips on how to overcome the dysfunctions. But for me this is highly contextual and I noticed I liked this part of the book a bit less because the tips applied less on my context. Also, with respect to solutions for a leadership team, I like ‘the Advantage’ also from Patrick Lencioni a lot more (but that may be content for a future blog post :-)).

A second reason is that understanding the relations between the dysfunctions can be a real help to understand and solve the underlying problems and get to a great team. An important part of the model is that these dysfunctions are not distinct, but form an interrelated model. If you have more of a dysfunction at the bottom of the triangle, chances become higher you also have a dysfunction at the top of the model. But this is not absolute. E.g. you do not need 100% of trust before you can have the start of a healthy amount of conflict. The reverse can also be true: only one of the dysfunctions can be enough to inhibit success of the team.

Conclusion

Anybody interested in team performance should read this book and know this model. Because of the combination of the fable and explanation it is fun to read and easier to remember.

Don’t expect to find a lot of ready-to-use recipes in the book to solve the dysfunctions, but seeing and understanding the dysfunctions brings you already a long way towards solving them within your own context. 

Solutions to the dysfunctions are highly contextual, but ultimately come down to practicing a small set of principles and embracing common sense with an uncommon level of discipline and persistence for a long period of time. In this, remember the following quote:

Building a strong team is both possible and remarkably simple. But it is painfully difficult.

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