In 2002, Patrick Lencioni wrote “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team” describing the many pitfalls teams face and the fundamental causes of organizational politics and team failure. Despite the lack of actual data to support his observations, the book has been on the New York Times and Business Week best-seller list, and it is a favorite of many organization consultants. This is no doubt because the dysfunctions are so familiar.
Lencioni describes the hierarchy of the five dysfunctions:
- Absence of trust — if team members are unwilling to take interpersonal risks with one another and are unwilling to be vulnerable or to admit mistakes and weaknesses; this culminates in poor trust-building practices. (Note: See my other blog articles on Trust.)
- Fear of conflict — when teams are incapable of engaging in unfiltered and passionate debate of ideas, the outcome is that members rely on carefully crafted safe statements to avoid conflict and reprisal; the unvarnished truth is not spoken.
- Lack of commitment — without healthy conflict team members feign buy-in; causing ambiguity about decisions. If there is agreement, it is done begrudgingly or to deflect conflict.
- Avoidance of accountability — without commitment and buy-in, accountability suffers as it is hard to hold someone accountable for what you do not believe in. Performance standards decline when no one is called out on their counterproductive behavior.
- Inattention to results — if team members do not hold each other accountable, results suffer. Individual interests, such as status and ego, override the team’s agenda.
We can all recognize these dysfunctional tendencies. In fact, these are present to a lesser or greater degree in virtually every team. So the question remains; how can leaders promote improvement along these dimensions?
Many organization consultants use this model in team-based interventions and executive coaching. Recognizing the dysfunctions and understanding how they affect team performance is not difficult, the hard part is changing them. How exactly do leaders change the norms, practices, and behaviors of individual team members?
The root of the problems and the focus for making change is in the nature of the conversations going on among team members, i.e., who is saying what to whom, on what topics, with what words, in what mood, etc. The team dysfunctions are manifested in the dialog, or lack thereof, going on between team members. To make improvements in team performance, managers need to focus on these conversations.
“Leadership is a phenomenon of the conversations of a team, not of an individual. The role of the leader is to make sure the right conversations are happening and that they are being assessed by the team as being effective. These are not one-way messages like take out the trash or do this task, but rather two-way conversations in which individuals share their background concerns, negotiate agreements for taking action together, and continuously develop a shared assessment of how the work and their relationship is progressing.”
Lencioni’s model is used by many management consultants to help leaders and groups understand the roots of their performance problems and to prompt changes in the group’s conversational patterns. For some this can be an important intervention illuminating a pathway for change.
The real challenge, however, is making the intervention stick. It is one thing to learn the model and quite another to change a group’s behavior, their practices around the structure and quality of their conversations. Even if this can be done during an intervention spanning a few weeks, how can the manager, leader or group make sure the new practices stick over the long haul?
This challenge is one of the reasons 4Spires developed its social task management solution – CommitKeeper. The software helps to instantiate new practices around conversations that address all of the team dysfunctions. CommitKeeper prompts explicit responses to requests and assures that clear commitments are made and that each party maintains proper and ongoing communication throughout the entire cycle: initial request through post-delivery. Accountability is made visible and the software keeps a detailed record of results. Trust is built through more honest conversations and a track record of making and keeping one’s commitments.
I’m betting the interventions that yield the best long term results will include a combination of training accompanied by the CommitKeeper software.