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Conquer Team Dysfunction

By Pat Lencioni, The Table Group

Like it or not, all teams are potentially dysfunctional. This is inevitable because they are made up of fallible, imperfect human beings. From the basketball court to the executive suite, politics and confusion are more the rule than the exception, which is a shame because the power of teamwork is substantial.

A former client, the founder of a billion dollar company, best expressed the power of teamwork when he once told me, “If you could get all the people in the organization rowing in the same direction, you could dominate any industry, in any market, against any competition, at any time.”

Whenever I repeat this adage to a group of leaders, they immediately nod their heads, but in a desperate sort of way. They seem to grasp the truth of it while simultaneously surrendering to the impossibility of actually making it happen.

Fortunately, there is hope. Counter to conventional wisdom, the causes of dysfunction are both identifiable and curable. However, they don’t die easily. Making a team functional and cohesive requires levels of courage and discipline that many groups cannot seem to muster.

Addressing the Dysfunctions
To better understand the level of dysfunction you and your team may be facing, ask yourself these simple questions:

  • 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?

  • Although no team is perfect and even the best teams sometimes struggle with one or more of these issues, the finest organizations constantly work to ensure that their answers are “yes.” If you answered “no” to many of these questions, your team may need some work.

    The first step toward reducing politics and confusion within your team is to understand that there are five dysfunctions to contend with, and address each that applies, one by one.

    The Dysfunctions
    Dysfunction #1: Absence of Trust
    Essentially, trust within a team is the confidence among team members that their peers’ intentions are good. Without a certain comfort level among team members, a foundation of trust is next to impossible. An absence of trust occurs when team members are reluctant to be vulnerable with one another and are unwilling to admit their mistakes, weaknesses or needs for help.

    Achieving vulnerability-based trust can be difficult because in the course of career advancement and educational pursuits, many successful individuals sometimes become competitive with their peers and protective of their reputations. Often times, it is a challenge for executives to turn off those competitive instincts that run counter to building a cohesive team.

    Creating trust is process that takes time. In working to overcome a lack of trust, team members should come to know each other’s working styles and personalities using non-intrusive exercises, such as the Meyers-Briggs Type Indicator, 360 Degree Feedback and a Personal Histories Exercise—a simple exercise that helps team members relate to one another on a personal level by asking them to reveal something personal about themselves (i.e. first job, favorite movie, etc.).

    Dysfunction #2: Fear of Conflict
    Teams that are lacking on trust are incapable of engaging in unfiltered, passionate debate about key issues, causing situations where team conflict can easily turn into veiled discussions and back channel comments. In a work setting where team members do not openly air their opinions, inferior decisions are the result.

    Unfortunately, conflict is considered taboo in many situations, especially at work. And, the higher up the you go along the management chain, the more you witness individuals spending inordinate amounts of time and energy trying to avoid the kind of passionate debates that are essential to any successful team.


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