The Index Card Summary of “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team”

The Five Dysfunctions of a Team is Patrick Lencioni‘s New York Times Best Seller for a reason: any team member can see themselves in this list of foibles.

Each of the five dysfunctions require leadership interventions to solve. Below is a brief summary of what that entails.

The Index Card Summary

1. Building trust

What. The foundation of a functional team is trust: confidence that peer intentions are good, that there is no reason to be protective around the group. Trust minimizes second-guessing and makes it easier to ask for help.

How. Create shared experiences over time, and understand unique attributes of team members. Team-building exercises, discussing team effectiveness, 360 feedback, and team leader role modeling can all drive the psychological safety and honesty needed to engender trust.

2. Addressing conflict

What. All relationships require productive conflict to grow. Without direct, content-focused conflict, teams can be handicapped by back-channeling and personal attacks that doom people to revisiting issues endlessly without resolution.

How. Acknowledge that conflict is productive; agree that impassioned debate is welcome. Ask for permission to address conflicts for the good of the team.

3. Driving commitment

What. Commitment requires both clarity and buy-in. Desire for consensus and/or certainty can weaken commitment and delay decision-making which, in turn, can paralyze teams and weaken their confidence.

How. Drive alignment through tight information cascades, close to the time decisions are made. Reduce ambiguity by setting intermediate deadlines. Address fears with contingency plans or worst-case-scenario analysis. Normalize decisiveness starting in low-risk environments. Leaders must also role model commitment by being ok with wrong decisions, asking for commitment, and reducing emphasis on certainty or consensus.

4. Welcome accountability

What. Peers need to welcome peer call-outs on actions that might negatively impact the team or actions others should model and amplify.

How. Leaders can enable and normalize peer accountability through setting agreed upon standards and goals, encouraging peer feedback, and giving collective team rewards for collectively modeling the right behaviors.

5. Focus on results

What. Time-bound, outcome-based performance drives business success. Yet it can often be crowded out by team or individual status or focus on survival.

How. Define specific target results that you publicly commit to, and reward only supporting actions; tie compensation to outcomes. Leaders must also reinforce a focus on results; if the team leader shows they value and reward other things, teams will react accordingly.

Disconnects and Through-lines

Unpacking the “How”

While Lencioni provides excellent tactical suggestions for tackling the numerous team dysfunctions, he spends too little time exploring where to start. While ‘absence of trust’ is named as the foundational problem, I think the easiest place to start is at the top, with the most visible problem: ‘inattention to results.’ Once you have specific results targets, you can drive accountability, which then motivates commitment, and so on down the pyramid.

Addressing the foundational dysfunctions, ‘fear of conflict’ and ‘absense of trust,’ is admittedly more challenging. In large organizations especially, cross-functional teams may not even conceive of themselves as teams and, thus, may see little benefit to engaging in conflict and little need to build trust. In those instances leaders play an even more critical role. Leaders with a longer-range view will be mindful of the personal costs of these more insidious dysfunctions: energy poorly spent, low morale, and high unwanted turnover.

Across the five dysfunctions, communication and leadership sit at the center of many proposed solutions. Spending more team time together drives trust, can root out conflict and reduce confusion. Documenting decisions and desired results and rapidly sharing and reinforcing them keeps teams in sync. And leadership modeling the right behavior and taking challenges head-on can inspire healthy team culture. These are all reasonable tactics to pursue, but side-step the issue that so much rests on leadership, especially the larger an organization gets.

Addressing the “Why”

Lencioni claims that “teams succeed because they are exceedingly human.” But realistically, it is equally why they fail. Humans are full of bias and are often more focused on their individual experience over organizational goals. Thus, even if an organization starts with a high-functioning team culture, it’s hard to scale; heterogeneity via sub-cultures is normal the larger an organization gets, and cultural drift is equally normal through turnover, changing external contexts, and organizational evolution. With this in mind, it makes more sense to think of high functioning teams as a practice to commit to rather than an end state. Like so much of life, it’s a journey, not a destination.

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