The five dysfunctions of a team

For the last twelve years my professional life has revolved around two types of team – venture capital partnerships (~4) and boards of directors (~25). Both of these are challenging teams to get working well, I think because the team members often don’t do a lot of day to day work together and a lot of the relationship building has to be done during key meetings – partner meetings for VCs and board meetings for companies. That is a bit like learning to fly by piloting a passenger jet.

Just about all of the boards and partnerships have had periods when the team dynamics weren’t great, and the following passage from JP Ranagaswami is on the money as to the reason why:

I liked the simple message in Patrick Lencioni’s Five Dysfunctions of a Team. An absence of trust leads to a fear of conflict which in turns reduces commitment, which makes for an environment where people avoid accountability and thereby lead to poor execution.

So I clicked the link to find out more and found a list of the five dysfunctions:

  • Absence of trust—unwilling to be vulnerable within the group
  • Fear of conflict—seeking artificial harmony over constructive passionate debate
  • Lack of commitment—feigning buy-in for group decisions creates ambiguity throughout the organization
  • Avoidance of accountability—ducking the responsibility to call peers on counterproductive behaviour which sets low standards
  • Inattention to results—focusing on personal success, status and ego before team success

As you can see from the quote from JP the five dysfunctions are linked which makes it difficult to break out of a cycle of poor team performance and make improvements. The beauty of frameworks like this is that they offer a way to analyse and describe the malaise and hopefully go on to fix it.

On company boards and at VC partnerships the most common dysfunctional behaviour I have observed is seeking artificial harmony by avoiding discussion of difficult issues. The difficult discussions are often avoided because there is uncertainty as to how different members of the team will react – i.e. there is a lack of trust.

I think the trick is to only get involved with people you trust, to be as clear and as rigorous as possible about the teams objectives and everyone’s responsibilities, and to then have the courage to start and persist with constructive debate, even when it’s difficult. Where there is an absence of trust the priority should be to re-establish it, but ultimately if partners don’t trust each other, or company directors don’t trust each other then it is questionable whether they belong on the same team. Sometimes the lack of trust stems from a lack of confidence in professional ability, and sometimes it reflects incompatible personalities, either way it should either be resolved or recognised and dealt with.

I wondered if getting the list of the five dysfunctions would save me from adding another book to my ever growing list, but the reviews on Amazon say that Patrick’s book has tools and exercises to diagnose and fix the dysfunctions so I’ve bought the Kindle copy. If there is more goodness to come from reading the book I will write about it here.

  • Well taken, Nic.

  • Very interesting Nic – does this take us back to the MIT research about ‘Passive Face Time’? As I read the research the benefit of the passive face time (or just being in the office or being in the meeting) is that it builds trust.

    It seems that trust (or lack of it or loss of it) in startups is the critical first step that leads to failure. 

    This just re-enforces the need and value of startuups to work together – face to face (at least some of the time) and offers and end to the ‘we can do this virtually’ argument?

    It may also help to explain why startups flourish in clusters – because of the far greater amounts of passive face time.


  • Hi Neil – yes, face time is part of it, but not enough on its own, particularly for boards of directors. N

  • Good post. The more I see startups in action, the more it’s apparent that the team function is the most important aspect of success.

    First Who, then What (Jim Collins ) is a complementary concept that is as true for small companies as large ones

  • People are definitely important, but you need a good idea to get the good people on board in the first place

  • I think your trick is missing a trick – there are many ways to build the ever-so-important trust of which Lencioni writes so well. Limiting oneself to folks you trust is limiting indeed.

    – Bob

  • I second that. You shouldn’t *have* to limit yourself to your trusted set before getting involved in a new board, partnership or team.  Not to mention, often times with people you *already* trust, you’re more willing to let little things go, which inevitably grow into larger things that become harder to deal with, and more disruptive to the team at large.  Sometimes starting fresh, with a team that shares a desire to operate effectively as one, is easier to build trust & commitment required to have the honest & crucial conversations you’re looking for.

    One other note, Nic, especially since you went ahead and downloaded the book- it’s well worth the read, and will likely take less than 90 minutes, given the allegory style Lencioni prefers.

  • Hi Howard, Bob – you are right ‘only get involved with people you trust’ is too sweeping. It’s a very investor-centric approach, and not open minded enough for general use. Outside of the boardroom it is important to be open to new ideas and that sometimes means working with people you don’t know. Inside the boardroom open-ness is also important, but you need to be careful about entering into relationships that you can’t easily end with people you don’t know. Note that trust can be built quickly if both parties are prepared to put the time in.

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