How the 5 Dysfunctions of a Team can Help with Culture and Wellbeing
Focusing on culture right now is one of the most powerful things an organisation can do. As you start the year off, the last thing you need is a ‘broken’ team culture – it’s hard enough to find and keep good people without having dysfunctional ‘noise’ impacting decisions for those good people to move on. In our current employment climate, that’s a big operational risk.
A dysfunctional team is one that is not working properly and what I would say is ‘unhealthy’. It’s been just over 21 years since Patrick Lencioni first published his New York Times bestselling book “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team”, which also serves as a business framework that is still to this day a practical model to build healthy teams that are cohesive and effective.
According to Lencioni, all teams have the potential to be dysfunctional. He writes, “it’s inevitable because teams are made up of fallible, imperfect human beings”. Symptoms of a dysfunctional team include disengagement, backstabbing, sidebar conversations, low morale, missed deadlines, lack of decision making and high turnover. Put all this together and perhaps the biggest cost to your organisation are people with increased mental health and wellbeing issues as a result of dysfunction.
I believe the need for organisations to foster great teamwork and be healthy was accelerated by the global pandemic and now even more so as we start 2023 with economic and workplace wellbeing challenges. We require organisations to embrace the full human experience and we require leaders to shift from reactive mindsets to embedding healthy workplace culture into business operations.
But what does this mean? What does a healthy organisation look like? I like to think of a healthy organisation as one where people can show up to work in all their humanness – warts and all! Healthy organisations are also high functioning and high performing. They create cultures that maximise talent by keeping politics and confusion to a minimum. They keep morale high with increased retention and productivity, and they attract star performers and elevate teamwork.
If you want your organisation to be healthier (and let’s face it, who wouldn’t!), according to Lencioni, the very first thing you need to do is to build a cohesive and healthy leadership team. The true measure of a team is that it accomplishes the results that it sets out to achieve. To do that on a consistent, ongoing basis, a team must overcome the five dysfunctions listed here by embodying the behaviours described for each one:
1. Absence of Trust
It’s vital for any team to have a foundation of trust. At the core of this is vulnerability-based trust. This means having the confidence with each other to be vulnerable, to admit mistakes, weaknesses or ask for help. It’s where people feel safe to say, “I made a mistake”, “I don’t know the answer” or “I’m sorry”. Great teams do not hold back with one another – they openly share thoughts and opinions – a trusting team will hold space for one another to do this. Vulnerability-based trust recognises that people are human and aren’t perfect. To overcome this dysfunction, most importantly, the leader has to demonstrate vulnerability first. How else can team members be vulnerable if the leader isn’t.
2. Fear of Conflict
Conflict is necessary on teams. I can feel you cringing at the thought! However, all great relationships, the ones that last over time, require unfiltered, passionate debate about key issues in order to grow. But it’s important to distinguish productive ideological conflict – conflict around ideas – from destructive fighting and interpersonal politics – conflict that becomes personal. To engage in productive ideological conflict means to produce the best possible solution. Where there is a strong foundation of trust, team members are able to openly share their thoughts and opinions without the need to protect the feelings of others.
3. Lack of Commitment
Great teams make clear and timely business decisions and they move forward with complete agreement from every member. However, let’s not be fooled – this does not necessarily mean consensus! On a leadership team, every voice needs to be heard. If team members do not passionately ‘weigh in’ to the decision, then buy-in will be difficult. It’s important for every team member to share their opinions – nobody will commit to a decision if they didn’t feel heard and considered.
4. Avoidance of Accountability
Accountability is the willingness of team members to call their peers on performance or behaviours that might hurt the team. Members of great teams improve their relationships by holding one another accountable in ‘real’ time. Peer pressure works as one of the most effective means for maintaining high standards of performance. A team that holds one another accountable identifies potential problems quickly by questioning one another without hesitation. The key is for the leader to ensure that they encourage and allow the team to serve as the first and primary source of accountability – but must also be willing to step in when needed.
5. Inattention to Results
When team members are not held accountable, they naturally tend to put their own needs (eg ego, recognition and career development) and the needs of their department ahead of the collective goals of the organisation. This can cause disruption and inter-departmental ‘fighting’. Everyone on the leadership team should make the collective results of the organisation more important than their individual goals, supporting the One Team concept.
The five dysfunctions need to be reviewed in the correct order – each dysfunction builds an important foundation for the next step. For this reason Lencioni has ordered the model as a pyramid with trust as the pyramid base. It works in practice like this: once trust is established, teams can feel comfortable engaging in healthy conflict. Once they can engage in passionate debate, they can commit to decisions being made. When they have committed to a decision, they can be held accountable by their peers. And only after this can they pay attention to results.
Ask yourself the following questions to find out how healthy and effective your team is:
- Do team members openly and readily disclose their opinions?
- Are team meetings compelling and productive?
- Does the team come to decisions quickly and avoid getting bogged down by consensus?
- Do team members confront one another about their shortcomings?
- Do team members sacrifice their own interests for the good of the team?
If you answered ‘no’ to many of these questions, then your team may need a bit of work and a deeper dive into the Five Dysfunctions.
What’s the impact?
Striving to create a functional, connected team is one of the few remaining competitive advances available to any organisation looking for a powerful point of differentiation. Plus, it’s the right thing to do by your people.
“If you get all the people in an organisation rowing in the same direction, you could dominate any industry, in any market, against any competition, at any time.” - Patrick Lencioni.
A team that is not functioning well won’t get good results on a consistent basis. Lencioni writes that a healthy functional team will avoid talking about the wrong issues and revisiting topics over and over again. Functional teams also make higher quality decisions and accomplish more in less time and with less distraction and frustration.
Healthy organisations build strong connections for greater levels of impact, satisfaction and belonging. It’s your role as a leader to create an environment for people to show up to work in all their wholeness as humans and work at their natural best. In doing so, you will also make them better people. And so, by building better teams at work, the impact is one that goes far wider. Your people matter. I’ve learnt from Lencioni that teams succeed because they are exceedingly human. He writes, “By acknowledging the imperfections of their humanity, members of functional teams overcome the natural tendencies that make trust, conflict, commitment, accountability and a focus on results so elusive”.
I challenge you to put your energy this year into building a healthy organisation, a healthy team culture and I guarantee the results will permeate into all parts of your business. You’ll noticeably see team members becoming more adept at addressing unhelpful behaviours, becoming more collaborative as they enter into honest/open debate, they’ll be spending less time navigating through problems and you’ll end up with a team that is proud of its achievements and determined to produce the best outcomes for your organisation. Let’s not forget about the impact on productivity, absenteeism or turnover. People rarely leave an organisation when they are part of a strong healthy team!
It takes a courageous, determined team to venture down the path of overcoming (or even avoiding) the five dysfunctions of a team. Building an effective, cohesive team is extremely hard. But it’s also simple. It can be ‘heavy lifting’ and needs a willingness to invest considerable time and emotional energy into the process – the results, however, I assure you, will be worth it!
Authored by Julia Stockman, one of our leadership facilitators.
If you would like some help with building a cohesive and healthy team, contact Nicky on email@example.com or 03 943 2373.