The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable

The Five Dysfunctions of a Team
Publisher: Jossey-Bass
Published: 4/11/2002
In The Five Dysfunctions of a Team Patrick Lencioni once again offers a leadership fable that is as enthralling and instructive as his first two best-selling books, The Five Temptations of a CEO and The Four Obsessions of an Extraordinary Executive. This time, he turns his keen intellect and storytelling power to the fascinating, complex world of teams.

Book Summary - The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni

Key Insights

Teamwork is prone to failure due to the ever-present human tendency towards weaknesses that can cripple a group effort. A few examples of team-busting predispositions include ego, selfishness, and personal agenda. The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni addresses the five most common deficiencies among team members and shows how to overcome them. Lencioni teaches these principles by telling the fictional story of a CEO organizing and moving her motley team forward. In this parable, Katheryn, a 57-year-old executive, is the unexpected choice for the new CEO position. She is charged with changing the direction of DecisionTech, a technology company that is failing. The book focuses on the participants in the management team and the dynamic forces between each of the players. The five dysfunctions are presented in the following order: Absence of Trust, Fear of Conflict, Lack of Commitment, Avoidance of Accountability, and Inattention to Results.

Key Points

Dysfunction #1- Absence of Trust

The core issue to be addressed when initially building a strong team is a lack of trust. In a work environment where much is expected, people tend to want to hide their weaknesses. They perceive that any admission of shortcomings could lead to censure, criticism, loss of promotion or even the job itself. This unwillingness to be vulnerable can result in distrust between team members as they speculate on the motives, intentions, strengths, and weaknesses of the other team players instead of accurately calculating what skills and abilities are available for the collective effort.

In the fable, Katheryn opens her team meeting by having the members share their strengths and weaknesses. She demonstrates strong leadership and begins to gain trust by being the first to expose her flaws. This helps the others feel more comfortable when it’s their turn to be as exposed and honest about both their weaknesses and their abilities. Katheryn openly discloses the leadership mistakes she made in the past and confesses that she was even fired from a job because of them. Such a revelation sets the tone for the other team members to be as truthful, recognizing that sharing these vulnerabilities is not as risky as it seems.

A few exercises to overcome trust issues include personal histories, where the team members answer questions that help share some of their life experiences and wisdom, inventory of the team members, where the team highlights the qualities of each other and looks at areas they can improve, taking personal profile tests like Myers-Briggs which provides insights that can be useful, and ropes course-type activities which may seem silly on the surface, but generate opportunities for communication and trust.

Dysfunction #2- Fear of Conflict

Very often, the fear of conflict causes teams to remain silent, holding back what could be important opinions, observations, and even expertise, afraid of offending the others. Conflict can actually be productive. This is an essential truth that follows the establishment of trust. Once trust exists, teammates know they can safely debate and examine all sides of an issue which allows them to come up with the best approach.

In the fictional story used to teach the principles, Katheryn notices that the team does not engage in any meaningful discussions. Difficult, yet vital topics were not being addressed in the beginning. To involve the team members in dialog, Katheryn created team building activities which allowed those in the group to learn to be more comfortable communicating with each other. The activities were not the issues at hand, but games designed to foster collaboration. In this way, the group evolved to the degree they could engage in healthy debates, even on topics that had previously been highly controversial. This allowed the group to move towards more effective resolutions.

A team can work to overcome their fear of conflict by “digging for disagreements,” an exercise were intentionally looking for areas of disagreement allows team members to preemptively work through them. Labeling conflict discussion as good and productive as it is happening can also be a good solution to help those who shy away from confrontation.

Dysfunction #3- Lack of Commitment

An essential trait of a successful team is the ability to make a decision and then commit to it without second-guessing. The team should reach a consensus to stand by whatever decision is made and see it through. An agreement by everyone on the team that the decision is the right one is rarely achieved, as there are as many different opinions and priorities as there are people on the team. A functional team knows the most important consensus to be reached is that everyone adheres to and implements the best decision that could be made, even if the final decision isn’t the one an individual was proposing. In order to achieve this kind of commitment, the team needs to first be able to have an open, honest, and equitable discussion, so everyone feels heard and understood. Reasonable people don’t need their perspectives to be the ones selected every time, as long as they know their suggestions were heard and considered by the group.

Tools for building commitment include seeking to make decisions by consensus, meaning that everyone is in agreement that they will work towards the goal. Until a consensus is reached, it is difficult for those who are not in agreement to commit. This may require additional discussion, but working together until everyone can agree to the plan will remove the problems with commitment. Be sure to wrap up the decision at the end of each meeting, which may reveal areas where consensus has not been reached. It is important for the team to recognize that areas of no decision are the worst condition. Eventually, everyone needs to agree and make a decision. Once the decisions are made, be sure to set deadlines for tasks to be completed.

Dysfunction #4- Avoidance of Accountability

One of the most uncomfortable duties of a team is to hold each other accountable. It can feel impolite, like having to poke into someone else’s business, and so it can become the important team function that is most avoided. The reaction by someone who is being called out can be negative, thus people want to avoid this sensitive situation. However, it’s actually highly dysfunctional not to use peer support (or pressure) to hold each other accountable.

In the fictional story, when a member of the team missed his deadline, Katheryn criticizes everyone, explaining that because they didn’t hold that person accountable, the analysis that was needed would not be done on time and everyone would suffer. The CEO blames the entire team for not spurring the slower team member forward for the sake of the project.

Peer-to-peer accountability is the most effective means of maintaining high standards of performance. When members of the team objectively hold each other accountable, it actually increases respect for one another. Knowing that everyone is equally passionate about giving the team their best effort lifts the expectations of the whole. The desire to not let the team down can be the needed motivation to do the best work possible.

Accountability requires goals to be clear. There should be no question about what the team is trying to accomplish. Progress reviews and reports are effective methods of keeping people on task and building in rewards makes the process of being accountable much more enjoyable, and which inspires greater effort.

Dysfunction #5- Inattention to Results

The fifth and last dysfunction of a team centers on the quality and focus of the goals. Individual objectives taking precedence over the collective goals of the team will always be problematic. For example, someone who is more attentive on winning an award, gaining a promotion or receiving a bonus, will shift their focus away from achieving the goals the team has set in favor of their own agenda. Individual motives will not produce results that are in favor of the company’s best interest.

The ongoing fable of the technology company teaches this principle as Katheryn tells the team a story about her husband. He was a high school basketball coach who had to drop his most talented player. The kid was more interested in his personal stats, such as how many baskets he scored than he was about the team winning or losing. Since the star player's goal was not in support of the team’s purpose (to win games), he had to be removed.

The more clearly defined the common goals of the team, the better chance they have of being achieved. If members of the team fail to follow such goals, the team will start to stagnate and lose their competitive edge. When this happens, team members may lose faith in the whole and leave the team, looking for a better one.

To help team members focus on the desired results of the team, have them each make a PUBLIC commitment to the team’s objectives. It is also important to tie rewards to those specific results, allowing the motivation for those who have a tendency for personal achievement to still have their need fulfilled. Of course, if the goals aren’t met, there is no reward.

Successful Teams Spend Substantial Time Together

The best way to resolve conflict and maintain motivation is for teammates to spend time together, face-to-face. Any arguments or potential conflicts are easier to address and de-escalate through regular communication. Trust is most effectively maintained by the familiarity achieved from spending time together.

In the parable, Katheryn requires the team to spend at least eight days per fiscal quarter together in various types of meetings including an annual meeting, various off-site meetings, staff meetings as well as ad hoc gatherings to discuss specific topics.

The Main Takeaway

One of the most important elements of a successful organization is the strength of its teams. Despite this truth, effective teamwork can actually be quite rare due to the common dysfunctions inherent in them. There are five dysfunctions in particular which, when addressed, can lead to success. They include the Absence of Trust, Fear of Conflict, Lack of Commitment, Avoidance of Accountability, and Inattention to Results. Patrick Lencioni identifies and explains each of these five dysfunctions by demonstrating them in story form. In this way, readers can more easily recognize these characteristics among their own team members and use the examples to make the needed changes.

About the Author

In 2008, Fortune magazine named Patrick Lencioni "one of the new gurus you should know."​ Lencioni has written many business-themed books, with his most successful being “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team.” He is also the pioneer of organizational health, calling it “the last competitive advantage in business today.” Lencioni is the founder of The Table Group, a management consulting firm located in the San Francisco Bay Area. He has written ten books total which have sold nearly 5 million copies and been translated into more than 30 languages.


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