Ideas in Action

January 3, 2015 | Posted by: Deb (Symons) Martindale

5 dysfunctions of a team – how does your team score?

One of the great privileges of our work is that we get to meet and work with a diverse range of executives and teams focused on public value. As we all know, each team is different, and some are more effective than others.

I recently found myself reflecting on something that Andy Singh at the  Australian Institute of Police Management (AIPM) had posted online about the ‘The five dysfunctions of a team’. Andy was referencing a book of the same name by leadership and organisational health writer Patrick Lencioni.

I posted some thoughts at the time, but I was inspired to read Lencioni’s book. Using a fictional organisation and executive team, he presents his theory as a story, in an easy to read format. Story aside, the key points outlined are valuable. Lencioni sets out the five dysfunctions of a team as:

  1. Absence of trust – Members are unwilling to show vulnerability
  2. Fear of conflict – Members avoid unfiltered and passionate debate of ideas
  3. Lack of commitment – Members lack buy-in and feign agreement. Meetings consist of a lack of decision-making
  4. Avoidance of accountability – Members hesitate to call their peers on counterproductive actions and behaviours
  5. Inattention to results – Members put their individual needs or their division’s needs above collective team goals.

Here’s a short excerpt which gives you a sense of the story:

“In spite of their undeniable intelligence and impressive educational backgrounds, [their] behaviour during meetings was worse than anything she had seen….Though open hostility was never really apparent and no-one ever seemed to argue, an underlying tension was undeniable. As a result, decisions never seemed to get made; discussions were slow and uninteresting, with few real exchanges; and everyone seemed to be desperately waiting for each meeting to end. And yet, as bad as the team was, they all seemed like well-intentioned and reasonable people when considered individually.”

5 dysfunctions of a team

Lencioni Patrick (2002) The five dysfunctions of a team – a leadership fable, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco

I think we’ve all been part of a team at some point in our careers exhibiting some of these behaviours, but what can you do about it if you think you are in one (or leading one!) now?

A first step would be recognising and acknowledging this behaviour – as a team. This in itself is likely to be a challenging activity, but it is important to find common ground on the current situation before attempting to initiate change.

A safe place

Setting a safe environment for behaviour change is critical. I can’t overstate it. Even if we can recognise that change is needed, team members will consciously or unconsciously ask themselves ‘What happens if I am vulnerable? What happens if I debate a point or show my passion on an issue? What happens if I disagree on a suggested direction? What happens if I call out a peer’s behaviour in front of others?’ In order to see change and to build a high performing team, the answer must be – you will be safe, you will be supported, and it will be worth it.

Feeling safe and supported isn’t really about being ‘nice’. It involves setting clear boundaries and providing leadership. Paradoxically, what we need to enable real change is a sense of stability.

If this makes sense but the thought of raising and addressing dysfunction in your team makes you want to run the other way, then the good news is there are options! For example, you could ask an independent observer to join your executive team meetings, bring in a team coach, or undertake some ‘system-role-self’ analysis as a team. It doesn’t have to be ‘weird’ if well managed.

Getting to the heart of your group’s dynamic – as a group – is a specific and valuable discipline which can really transform your teams. Instead, we so often see organisations trying to address behavioural or performance issues with a focus on developing individuals. Or running planning days designed to ‘bring everyone together’ (magic!). If you haven’t tried it before, add some work on group dynamics to your toolkit on building great teams.

I should note that following the story, Lencioni’s book also provides a section to assist with diagnosis and development of your own teams. It includes suggestions for overcoming each of the dysfunctions and includes notes on the role of leader for each area of work.

We’d love to hear your thoughts on how you have confronted and resolved team dysfunction.

Deb has worked both within and for public sector executive teams. She has experience in organisation behavioural diagnosis, system and role analysis and multi-agency collaboration, and she is always interested in building team performance.

5 dysfunctions of a team small

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