Five Dysfunctions of a Team
A distillation by Molly Weisse-Bernstein
My experience in reading the Five Dysfunctions of a Team was both stunning and familiar. While reading the book I’d find myself saying: “I knew that.” But, it would dawn on me that it was the first time I consciously “knew that”. I was amazed by how clearly and concisely Lencioni mapped out the five dysfunctions every team faces, and why those dysfunctions exist.
For the first time in my professional life, I’m working on a team. Coleman Associates is an organization that is based on teams, insists on teamwork, and demands results from teams.
There are different types of teams in Coleman Associates. The Big Team is comprised of all eleven Associates. Then there are smaller project teams, like Miami Spice!, a team of five Associates responsible for training and coaching nine redesign teams in the Jackson Health System Ambulatory Redesign Collaborative in Miami, Florida.
Since I’ve never worked on a team before, this experience has been difficult for me, as well as remarkably rewarding. I’ve worked in many jobs where I worked closely with colleagues and my bosses, but a team experience—a true team experience—is really quite different. A true team experience is exhilarating.
In Five Dysfunctions of a Team, Lencioni explains and describes the essence of team dynamics. The book is written as a fable, and the story revolves around a high technology company that’s struggling in the marketplace to find enough customers. The new CEO realizes the company has an edge when it comes to product innovation and managerial talent, but she is acutely aware that the inability of the managers to work together effectively as a team is negating all other advantages—and then some. In health care, this is a very typical scenario.
The book explains the root reason why teams are inherently dysfunctional—and all teams have all these dysfunctions, just in varying degrees! Why? It’s because teams are comprised of people. And people are ripe with dysfunction and imperfection. Even the most self-possessed person has flaws and weaknesses.
So, what are these five dysfunctions? Well, the first team dysfunction is the absence of trust among team members. This is when individuals feel they need to be or should be so strong, so right, so competent, that they reveal no vulnerability. For a team to be “functional”, everyone has to learn to trust the other people on the team to not exploit their vulnerabilities. I’ve found that in the team setting of Coleman Associates, I have a very hard time admitting when I don’t know how to do something and so I have difficulty asking for help. This speaks to my fear of being vulnerable. I tell myself: “If I don’t know how to do everything, then I’ll be exposed as a fraud or as an incompetent”. This isn’t true. No one can be expected to know everything about everything.
The best teams are comprised of members who take the time to know each other well and are utterly honest with each other about each person’s strengths and weaknesses. That’s how a team, in its work together, avoids depending on the wrong person to get a specific job done. You know “Jane” is not good at group communication, so everyone jokes about that and Jane’s not put into that position unless Jane says: “I need to overcome this fear. I’d like to do the group thing. Can anyone help me?” One safe way to guarantee vulnerability is to recognize your own strengths and weaknesses, and describe them to your teammates. Yikes!
The second dysfunction of teams is our innate fear of conflict. Because of this, we create artificial harmony. I learned to be nice to everyone so everyone would like me. I don’t know where, why, or how I learned to do this, but I’m determined to unlearn it. As a result of reading this book I now see a trait in myself: Before I do or say anything, I put my intended words through my mental grinder: “How will this message be received?” When I’m shaping my words and actions so that the answer to that question is: “They’ll like me!” I find myself struggling between saying what I need to say and wanting to be voted “Miss Congeniality”.
I can illustrate how this dysfunction works. Two of my fellow Coleman Associates and I teamed up recently to do a redesign “Blitz”, which is where we fully implement the redesigned patient visit process in a small clinic within four days. This imperfection in myself—the fear of conflict—reared its ugly head during those grueling four days.
I was working closely with a woman who was unresponsive and unfriendly. I knew I wasn’t doing this redesign work to make friends, but on some level I really wanted her to like me. It’s true that most people will do a lot for their friends, but it’s also true that people really respond to those whom they respect—whether they like them or not. So, instead of trying to get this woman to respect me, I tried to make her like me. Well, she didn’t like me and didn’t want to like me.
My quandary hurt my team because I was unable to get her to do the things we needed her to do. I did not directly confront her lack of cooperation. That would have upset the established harmony, which was really artificial harmony. Among health care redesign teams, this is the most dangerous dysfunction of all.
At Coleman Associates, we’re pretty good about airing our individual concerns and ideas within our own project teams, so everyone feels heard and we’re able to make decisions and keep the momentum going. We nurture “conflict”, rather than avoid it. We learn that “idea conflict”, rather than personal conflict, is about respect for the team process, the need to accomplish big things in a short time. Although it is uncomfortable at times, conflict is necessary for healthy teams. And, the more you do it, the more you appreciate how constructive conflict can be.
The third dysfunction is the lack of commitment to the decisions of the team, which means that people are ambiguous about achieving something together. This is related to the previous dysfunction, in that it requires everyone to air her thoughts and feelings regarding an idea or course of action so that the best decision can be made. This is not as much about democracy as it is about getting everything in the open and on the table. In Coleman Associates, all team members are actively engaged in team dialogue and thrashing out a clever course of action. Then we reach a decision. And, then, all team members commit wholeheartedly to that decision. No one is on the sidelines watching “to see how this comes out.” The important thing is that all of us on the team commit to the decision and do our part to make it successful.
“Hard feelings” usually spring from not airing all of your concerns in the first place, or feeling like you weren’t heard. So, as a team member, you have the responsibility to air all of your concerns and also to listen thoughtfully and completely to your teammates’ concerns.
IDEO, the world renown Silicon Valley design firm, does this beautifully. The whole team looks at a problem and all team members throw their thoughts into the mix. There’s no individual ownership or feeling of “My idea has to win.” In fact, because the team really mixes it up in dissecting, reconstructing, altering, and embellishing ideas, a great team will produce ideas that are clearly a product of “team thinking” and are far superior to the thinking of the “lone genius”. This is how the very best ideas emerge.
The fourth dysfunction is avoidance of accountability. This sounds like: “I’ll do my best.” “I’ll get to it if I have time.” “Sorry, but the dog ate my homework.” A team member never, ever lets the team down with respect to meeting deadlines and doing quality work. If a team member does either, it is the responsibility of each and every other team member to immediately confront the errant colleague. Not doing so fosters low standards for people in the organization. Remember: Inaction is an action. You must hold your peers responsible for achieving results and working to a very high standard of quality. It’s also your responsibility, as a team member, to give permission to your teammates to hold you accountable.
One important aspect of all this is that you must trust that the team member has good intentions in holding you accountable, so this is not a personal attack that calls for defensiveness, but a moment of insightfulness about your own shortcomings. And you, when holding another member accountable, need to trust that your teammate was merely falling down on his commitments and not trying to sabotage the project or project team. This takes us back to the very first dysfunction described by Lencioni: absence of trust.
Now, for the final dysfunction, the ultimate dysfunction, inattention to results. This is when our egos get in the way of our team’s ability to be successful. Lencioni uses an example of a basketball team. If there’s one star player who’s concerned more with how many points she scores rather than if the team wins or loses, then the team is hurt by her, not helped. We have to learn that the biggest organizational successes usually come from team successes rather than individual successes. Egos exert themselves both in big (swaggering) and small (it’s about me) ways. The team that is the victim of this dysfunction will likely die from “a thousand small ego cuts” rather than from having an egomaniac on the team.
Becoming a tight and effective team is astoundingly rewarding. The work that gets accomplished through teams is profoundly better. Like a jury, a team working together towards a common goal is able to produce remarkable results.