Understanding and overcoming Lencioni’s five dysfunctions

At some point in your career, you’ve likely taken over managerial responsibilities for an extremely challenged department or company. It’s the ultimate leadership crisis: How do you unite a team that is in such a state of dysfunction that it threatens to bring down the entire company?

In The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, renowned author Patrick Lencioni asks that very question and arrives at a surprising answer: Building a cohesive, successful team isn’t complicated. In fact, simplicity is key, whether you oversee a small department or the entire staff of a multinational corporation.

That, says Lencioni, is because there are just five dysfunctions at the root of all team struggles: absence of trust, fear of conflict, lack of commitment, avoidance of accountability, and inattention to results. While these dysfunctions can easily be viewed as five distinct issues, Lencioni points out that in reality they are all part of an interrelated model. As a result, falling prey to even one of them could mean falling prey to all—and that could be lethal to the success of your team.

After detailing these dysfunctions through the story of Kathryn, an imaginary CEO, Lencioni outlines actionable steps that can be used to overcome them and build a cohesive, effective team.

Behind this story is a deceptively simple yet powerful message for those among us seeking to be exceptional leaders. In this issue of Executive Catalyst, we explore that message.

The story of Kathryn

In The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, Lencioni uses his familiar writing style, which incorporates a story—this time that of Kathryn Petersen, the new (CEO) of an imaginary company called DecisionTech.

Once a well-funded and promising startup company in Silicon Valley, DecisionTech had fallen from grace in just two years. Despite having more cash, better core technology, and a more powerful board of directors than its competitors, DecisionTech lagged behind those competitors in both customers and revenue growth.

Part of the reason, Kathryn identified, was the company’s lack of teamwork.

Despite impressive backgrounds and skills, team members behaved badly at meetings—worse, in fact, than Kathryn had ever seen in the business world. The tension was undeniable, discussions were slow, and decisions never seemed to get made.

In response, Kathryn announced a series of two-day executive retreats, and at the first, introduced her theory about why the team wasn’t working: It was dysfunctional on five levels.

The best teams succeed not because they’re perfect, but because they’re human, and they overcome their members’ natural tendencies to hide weaknesses.

Kathryn’s Team-Building Strategies

Kathryn, Lencioni’s heroine, used a number of team-building strategies to prevent the five dysfunctions.

  • Annual leadership meetings (three days, off-site). Topics might include strategic planning and budget discussions; time might also be dedicated to leadership development.
  • Quarterly staff meetings (two days, off-site). Topics might include a review of major goals, such as strategic or financial objectives, discussions of employee performance, and resolution of key issues.
  • Weekly staff meetings (two hours, on-site). Topics might include a review of recent activities and progress toward goals; time might also be dedicated to resolving key issues.
  • Ad-hoc topical meetings (two hours, on-site). Topics might include discussion of issues that cannot be adequately addressed during weekly staff meetings.

The five dysfunctions

According to Lencioni (via Kathryn), companies fail to achieve effective teamwork because they unknowingly fall victim to five natural pitfalls that progress like falling dominos, one after another.

Dysfunction 1: Absence of Trust

Trust, says Lencioni, lies at the heart of a functioning team—and without it, teamwork is impossible.

In this context, trust is the ability of team members to make themselves vulnerable— essentially revealing weaknesses without concern about repercussions.

Achieving vulnerability-based trust is not easy, says Lencioni; it requires an in-depth understanding of the skills and weaknesses of team members, and revealing those requires the sharing of experiences over time. But a team can dramatically accelerate the process with a few tools:

  • Use a personal-histories exercise. Team members who are sitting around a table at a meeting all answer a short list of questions about themselves.
  • Use a team-effectiveness exercise. Team members identify each member’s single most important contribution and single most necessary area of improvement.
  • Profile personalities. Team members all undergo personality profiling, such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), and share results.

It’s important to note, says Lencioni, that as a leader you must take the initiative and demonstrate genuine (not staged) vulnerability first—even if doing so may entail losing face in front of your team.

Dysfunction 2: Fear of Conflict

An absence of trust, says Lencioni, sets the tone for the second dysfunction, fear of conflict. That’s because distrusting teams cannot engage in a passionate debate of ideas.

In this context, fear of conflict is the unwillingness to engage in healthy debate. It’s important that team members know that the only purpose of discussion is to produce the best possible solution as quickly as possible. Teams that understand this accept conflict, resolve issues, and emerge from heated debates with no collateral damage.

Developing the ability to engage in healthy debate without the fear of conflict requires acknowledging that conflict is necessary, then taking steps to make conflict productive. Lencioni suggests a few tools:

  • Use the Thomas-Kilmann conflict mode instrument (TKI). Team members use this tool to understand their natural inclinations in the face of conflict so they can recognize their patterns and act differently.
  • Mine. A team member is assigned to be a “miner,” which is a person who extracts buried disagreements within the team and brings them to the surface.
  • Issue reminders. When mining, team members encourage each other not to retreat from healthy debate by reminding those who are engaged in conflict that what they are doing is necessary.

It’s important to note, says Lencioni, that as a leader you must exercise restraint when your team becomes engaged in conflict. As messy as it feels, let your team hash it out.

Dysfunction 3: Lack of Commitment

When team members haven’t aired their opinions, they rarely commit to decisions.

In this context, commitment is a function of clarity and buy-in, says Lencioni. In other words, functioning teams make clear decisions and move forward with complete buy-in from every team member, including those who voted against the decision. As a result, no one harbors doubts about whether to support the agreed-upon course of action.

According to Lencioni, a lack of commitment is often the result of a desire for consensus and certainty, neither of which is necessary. Functioning team members, he says, understand that people don’t need to get their way in order to support a decision; they only need to know that their opinions have been considered. Functioning team members also unite and commit to clear courses of action even when they’re not sure the decision is correct.

Ensuring commitment, says Lencioni, involves using a few simple tools to maximize clarity and achieve buy-in:

  • Cascade messaging. Review key decisions made during a meeting at the end of the meeting, and agree about what needs to be communicated to constituencies about those decisions.
  • Create deadlines. Create and communicate clear deadlines for when decisions will be made, and commit to those dates with rigidity.
  • Discuss plan B. Clarify the worst-case scenario for each decision being considered, and discuss contingency plans.
  • Start with low-risk exposure. Demonstrate the effectiveness of decision-making by starting with low-risk situations.

It’s important to note, says Lencioni, that as a leader you must be comfortable making a decision that could turn out to be wrong, be willing to push for closure, and demand adherence to schedules.

Dysfunction 4: Avoidance of Accountability

When there is a lack of commitment, team members develop a fourth dysfunction, which is an avoidance of accountability.

In this context, accountability refers to the willingness of team members to call out their peers on behaviors that might hurt the team.

It makes sense why this dysfunction is so linked to the third: When there is no clear plan of action, how do you identify counterproductive actions? The essence of this dysfunction, however, is an unwillingness to tolerate the discomfort that accompanies difficult conversations.

Ensuring accountability, says Lencioni, involves peer pressure, because team members will be hesitant to let others down, especially those they respect. A few classic management tools can help in this regard:

  • Publish objectives and standards. It’s easier for team members to hold one another accountable when it’s clear what the team needs to achieve and who needs to deliver it.
  • Have progress reviews. Team members should regularly explain how they feel their peers are performing against published objectives and standards.
  • Reward teams. By shifting rewards away from the individual toward the team, you create a culture of accountability. A team is unlikely to stand by and fail because one member isn’t pulling his or her weight.

It’s important to note, says Lencioni, that as a leader you have to allow the team to serve as the primary accountability mechanism; you are only a disciplinarian when the team itself fails, which should be rare.

Dysfunction 5: Inattention to Results

Avoidance of accountability creates an environment in which team members put their individual needs (such as career) or even divisional needs (such as status) above the team’s need for results.

Caring about something more than the collective goals of the team, says Lencioni, is the ultimate dysfunction. That’s because a good organization will specify what it needs to achieve in a given period, and achievement of these goals will drive the success of the organization.

As a result, an unrelenting focus on team objectives and clearly defined outcomes is essential. To achieve this, it’s important to make results clear and reward only those behaviors that contribute to results. Ideas include:

  • Declare the desired results publicly. Commit publicly to specific results—not just financial measures, but other objectives that will help achieve profits.
  • Create results-based rewards. Tie team members’ rewards (such as compensation) to achieving specific team outcomes, and reward only those those who make real contributions to team goals.

It’s important to note, says Lencioni, that as a leader you must set the tone. If team members think you value anything more than the collective goals of the team, they’ll do so themselves.

Our take

Most people dread attending team meetings. That’s no surprise: Rarely have I encountered a highly functional team that addresses the “meta” of the meeting. Teams are often so focused on the task at hand that they fail to step back and assess the team dynamic. That’s unfortunate, because the team dynamic can deeply impact how effectively a team approaches and executes its goals. Without a keen, in-the-moment, observational review of the team dynamic, teams seldom improve. They risk becoming stuck at their current functional (or, more often, dysfunctional) level. This naturally leads to member frustration and lack of energy, engagement, and commitment. Team meetings don’t have to be dreadful, however. When Lencioni’s five dysfunctions are understood and addressed, meetings should be energizing. They should also increase efficiency and improve execution. Cultivating awareness of Lencioni’s five dysfunctions may require investing additional time, but it will pay dividends many times over in measurable results.