The Five Dysfunctions of a Team

The Five Dysfunctions of a Team book cover


Author: Patrick Lencioni

Recommended by:

Date read: 18-04-2021

My rating: 5 out of 5

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High-Level Thoughts:

Lencioni examines the five levels on which a team can fall apart, and explains how to establish the opposite: a team with high trust, that engages in constructive conflict, commits to decisions, holds each other accountable, and is focused on results. Honestly, this one explains every broken team I’ve ever been a part of.

Highlights and Summary Notes

The Fable

Over the years I’ve come to the conclusion that there are five reasons why teams are dysfunctional.

The first dysfunction: absence of trust.

Great teams do not hold back with one another,” she said. “They are unafraid to air their dirty laundry. They admit their mistakes, their weaknesses, and their concerns without fear of reprisal.”

Theoretically, if everyone is completely on the same page and working in lockstep toward the same goals with no sense of confusion, then I suppose a lack of debate might be a good sign.”

I don’t have a lot of rules when it comes to meetings. But there are a few that I’m a stickler about.

Basically, I want you all to do two things: be present and participate. That means everyone needs to be fully engaged in whatever we’re talking about.”

Before we get into any heavy lifting, let’s start with something that I call personal histories.” Kathryn explained that everyone would answer five nonintrusive personal questions having to do with their backgrounds:

  • Hometown?
  • Number of kids in the family?
  • Interesting childhood hobbies?
  • Biggest challenge growing up?
  • First job?

They spent the next several hours, working through lunch, reviewing their individual behavioral tendencies according to a variety of diagnostic tools that they had completed before coming to Napa. One of these was the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator.

I know that you’re all probably starting to wonder, ‘Didn’t we do this yesterday?’ And I realize it’s repetitive. But this stuff won’t stick unless we understand how to apply it completely.”

For the next few hours, the group reviewed the material they had covered the previous day.

Remember, teamwork begins by building trust. And the only way to do that is to overcome our need for invulnerability.”

She then asked everyone to spend five minutes deciding what they believed were their single biggest strength and weakness in terms of their contribution to DecisionTech’s success or failure. “I don’t want you to give me some generic weakness, and I don’t want you glossing over your strengths because you’re too modest or embarrassed to tell us what you think you’re really good at. Take this simple exercise seriously, and be willing to put yourself out there.”

Kathryn described the next dysfunction by going to the white board and writing the phrase inattention to results at the top of the triangle. “We are going to the top of the chart now to talk about the ultimate dysfunction: the tendency of team members to seek out individual recognition and attention at the expense of results. And I’m referring to collective results— the goals of the entire team.”

Ken always says that his job is to create the best team possible, not to shepherd the careers of individual athletes. And that’s how I look at my job.”

The teams that figure […] out [how to win as a team] have a bigger advantage than ever before because most of their competitors are just a bunch of individuals looking out for themselves.”

Certainly profit is a big part of it. But I’m talking more about near-term results. If you let profit be your only guide to results, you won’t be able to know how the team is doing until the season is almost over.”

The key, of course, is to define our goals, our results, in a way that is simple enough to grasp easily, and specific enough to be actionable. Profit is not actionable enough. It needs to be more closely related to what we do on a daily basis

revenue, expenses, new customer acquisition, current customer satisfaction, employee retention, market awareness, and product quality.

but your department cannot be doing well because the company is failing and if the company is failing then we are all failing and there is no way that we can justify the performance of our own departments

Okay, imagine a basketball coach in the locker room at half-time. He calls the team’s center into his office to talk with him one-on-one about the first half, and then he does the same with the point guard, the shooting guard, the small forward, and the power forward, without any of them knowing what everyone else was talking about. That’s not a team. It’s a collection of individuals.”

All of you, every one of you, are responsible for sales. Not just JR. All of you are responsible for marketing. Not just Mikey. All of you are responsible for product development, customer service, and finance. Does that make sense?

Politics is when people choose their words and actions based on how they want others to react rather than based on what they really think.”

If we don’t trust one another, then we aren’t going to engage in open, constructive, ideological conflict. And we’ll just continue to preserve a sense of artificial harmony.

The next dysfunction of a team is the lack of commitment and the failure to buy in to decisions.” She wrote the dysfunction above the previous one. “And the evidence of this one is ambiguity,

The point here is that most reasonable people don’t have to get their way in a discussion. They just need to be heard, and to know that their input was considered and responded to

Disagree and commit: You can argue about something and disagree, but still commit to it as though everyone originally bought into the decision completely.

“Once we achieve clarity and buy-in, it is then that we have to hold each other accountable for what we sign up to do, for high standards of performance and behavior. And as simple as that sounds, most executives hate to do it, especially when it comes to a peer’s behavior, because they want to avoid interpersonal discomfort

People aren’t going to hold each other accountable if they haven’t clearly bought in to the same plan.

But when a company has a collection of good managers who don’t act like a team, it can create a dilemma for them, and for the company. You see, it leads to confusion about who their first team is.” Jeff asked for clarification. “First team?” “Yes, your first team. And all of this relates to the last dysfunction—putting team results ahead of individual issues. Your first team has to be this one.

You are fighting. But about issues. That’s your job. Otherwise, you leave it to your people to try to solve problems that they can’t solve. They want you to hash this stuff out so they can get clear direction from us.

The model

AS DIFFICULT as it is to build a cohesive team, it is not complicated

  1. The first dysfunction is an absence of trust among team members. Essentially, this stems from their unwillingness to be vulnerable within the group. Team members who are not genuinely open with one another about their mistakes and weaknesses make it impossible to build a foundation for trust.
  2. This failure to build trust is damaging because it sets the tone for the second dysfunction: fear of conflict. Teams that lack trust are incapable of engaging in unfiltered and passionate debate of ideas. Instead, they resort to veiled discussions and guarded comments.
  3. A lack of healthy conflict is a problem because it ensures the third dysfunction of a team: lack of commitment. Without having aired their opinions in the course of passionate and open debate, team members rarely, if ever, buy in and commit to decisions, though they may feign agreement during meetings.
  4. Because of this lack of real commitment and buy-in, team members develop an avoidance of accountability, the fourth dysfunction. Without committing to a clear plan of action, even the most focused and driven people often hesitate to call their peers on actions and behaviors that seem counterproductive to the good of the team.
  5. Failure to hold one another accountable creates an environment where the fifth dysfunction can thrive. Inattention to results occurs when team members put their individual needs (such as ego, career development, or recognition) or even the needs of their divi-sions above the collective goals of the team.


Trust lies at the heart of a functioning, cohesive team. Without it, teamwork is all but impossible.

In the context of building a team, trust is the confidence among team members that their peers’ intentions are good, and that there is no reason to be protective or careful around the group. In essence, teammates must get comfortable being vulnerable with one another.

Achieving vulnerability-based trust is difficult because in the course of career advancement and education, most successful people learn to be competitive with their peers, and protective of their reputations. It is a challenge for them to turn those instincts off for the good of a team, but that is exactly what is required.

Members of teams with an absence of trust . . .

  • Conceal their weaknesses and mistakes from one another
  • Hesitate to ask for help or provide constructive feedback
  • Hesitate to offer help outside their own areas of responsibility
  • Jump to conclusions about the intentions and aptitudes of others without attempting to clarify them
  • Fail to recognize and tap into one another’s skills and experiences
  • Waste time and energy managing their behaviors for effect
  • Hold grudges
  • Dread meetings and find reasons to avoid spending time together

Members of trusting teams . . .

  • Admit weaknesses and mistakes
  • Ask for help
  • Accept questions and input about their areas of responsibility
  • Give one another the benefit of the doubt before arriving at a negative conclusion
  • Take risks in offering feedback and assistance
  • Appreciate and tap into one another’s skills and experiences
  • Focus time and energy on important issues, not politics
  • Offer and accept apologies without hesitation
  • Look forward to meetings and other opportunities to work as a group

Personal Histories Exercise

This low-risk exercise requires nothing more than going around the table during a meeting and having team members answer a short list of questions about themselves. Questions need not be overly sensitive in nature and might include the following: number of siblings, hometown, unique challenges of childhood, favorite hobbies, first job, and worst job.

Team Effectiveness Exercise

It requires team members to identify the single most important contribution that each of their peers makes to the team, as well as the one area that they must either improve upon or eliminate for the good of the team. All members then report their responses, focusing on one person at a time, usually beginning with the team leader.

Personality and Behavioral Preference Profiles

The best profiling tool, in my opinion, is the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI).

Many of these tools do require the participation of a licensed consultant, which is important to avoid the misuse of their powerful implications and applications.

360-Degree Feedback

They are riskier than any of the tools or exercises described so far because they call for peers to make specific judgments and provide one another with constructive criticism.

The key to making a 360-degree program work, in my opinion, is divorcing it entirely from compensation and formal performance evaluation. Rather, it should be used as a developmental tool, one that allows employees to identify strengths and weaknesses without any re-percussions. By being even slightly connected to formal performance evaluation or compensation, 360-degree programs can take on dangerous political undertones.

Experiential Team Exercises

experiential team exercises can be valuable tools enhancing teamwork as long as they are layered upon more fundamental and relevant processes.

The Role of the Leader

The most important action that a leader must take to encourage the building of trust on a team is to demonstrate vulnerability first

Connection to Dysfunction 2

By building trust, a team makes conflict possible because team members do not hesitate to engage in passionate and sometimes emotional debate, knowing that they will not be punished for saying something that might otherwise be interpreted as destructive or critical.


It is also ironic that so many people avoid conflict in the name of efficiency, because healthy conflict is actually a time saver. Contrary to the notion that teams waste time and energy arguing, those that avoid conflict actually doom themselves to revisiting issues again and again without resolution. They often ask team members to take their issues “off-line,” which seems to be a euphemism for avoiding dealing with an important topic, only to have it raised again at the next meeting.

Ideological conflict is limited to concepts and ideas, and avoids personality-focused, mean-spirited attacks. However, it can have many of the same external qualities of interpersonal conflict—passion, emotion, and frustration—so much so that an outside observer might easily mistake it for unproductive discord.

Teams that fear conflict . . .

  • Have boring meetings
  • Create environments where back-channel politics and personal attacks thrive
  • Ignore controversial topics that are critical to team success
  • Fail to tap into all the opinions and perspectives of team members
  • Waste time and energy with posturing and interpersonal risk management

Teams that engage in conflict . . .

  • Have lively, interesting meetings
  • Extract and exploit the ideas of all team members
  • Solve real problems quickly
  • Minimize politics
  • Put critical topics on the table for discussion


Members of teams that tend to avoid conflict must occasionally assume the role of a “miner of conflict”— someone who extracts buried disagreements within the team and sheds the light of day on them. They must have the courage and confidence to call out sensitive issues and force team members to work through them

In the process of mining for conflict, team members need to coach one another not to retreat from healthy debate. One simple but effective way to do this is to recognize when the people engaged in conflict are becoming uncomfortable with the level of discord, and then interrupt to remind them that what they are doing is necessary

Real-Time Permission

Other Tools

Another tool that specifically relates to conflict is the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument, commonly referred to as the TKI.

The Role of the Leader

it is key that leaders demonstrate restraint when their people engage in conflict, and allow resolution to occur naturally, as messy as it can sometimes be

Connection to Dysfunction 3

By engaging in productive conflict and tapping into team members’ perspectives and opinions, a team can confidently commit and buy in to a decision knowing that they have benefited from everyone’s ideas.


In the context of a team, commitment is a function of two things: clarity and buy-in. Great teams make clear and timely decisions and move forward with complete buy-in from every member of the team, even those who voted against the decision. They leave meetings confident that no one on the team is quietly harboring doubts about whether to support the actions agreed on.

The two greatest causes of the lack of commitment are the desire for consensus and the need for certainty.

Consensus: Great teams understand the danger of seeking consensus, and find ways to achieve buy-in even when complete agreement is impossible. They understand that reasonable human beings do not need to get their way in order to support a decision, but only need to know that their opinions have been heard and considered. Great teams ensure that everyone’s ideas are genuinely considered, which then creates a willingness to rally around whatever decision is ultimately made by the group. And when that is not possible due to an impasse, the leader of the team is allowed to make the call.

Certainty: Great teams also pride themselves on being able to unite behind decisions and commit to clear courses of action even when there is little assurance about whether the decision is correct. That’s because they understand the old military axiom that a decision is better than no decision. They also realize that it is better to make a decision boldly and be wrong—and then change direction with equal boldness—than it is to waffle.

Regardless of whether it is caused by the need for consensus or certainty, it is important to understand that one of the greatest consequences for an executive team that does not commit to clear decisions is unresolvable discord deeper in the organization. More than any of the dysfunctions, this one creates dangerous ripple effects for subordinates. When an executive team fails to achieve buy-in from all team members, even if the disparities that exist seem relatively small, employees who report to those executives will inevitably clash when they try to interpret marching orders that are not clearly aligned with those of colleagues in other departments. Like a vortex, small gaps between executives high up in an organization become major discrepancies by the time they reach employees below.

A team that fails to commit . . .

  • Creates ambiguity among the team about direction and priorities
  • Watches windows of opportunity close due to excessive analysis and unnecessary delay
  • Breeds lack of confidence and fear of failure
  • Revisits discussions and decisions again and again
  • Encourages second-guessing among team members

A team that commits . . .

  • Creates clarity around direction and priorities
  • Aligns the entire team around common objectives
  • Develops an ability to learn from mistakes
  • Takes advantage of opportunities before competitors do
  • Moves forward without hesitation
  • Changes direction without hesitation or guilt

Cascading Messaging


Contingency and Worst-Case Scenario Analysis

Low-Risk Exposure Therapy

The Role of the Leader

More than any other member of the team, the leader must be comfortable with the prospect of making a decision that ultimately turns out to be wrong. And the leader must be constantly pushing the group for closure around issues, as well as adherence to schedules that the team has set. What the leader cannot do is place too high a premium on certainty or consensus.

Connection to Dysfunction 4

In order for teammates to call each other on their behaviors and actions, they must have a clear sense of what is expected. Even the most ardent be-lievers in accountability usually balk at having to hold someone accountable for something that was never bought in to or made clear in the first place.


Accountability is a buzzword that has lost much of its meaning as it has become as overused as terms like empowerment and quality. In the context of teamwork, however, it refers specifically to the willingness of team members to call their peers on performance or behaviors that might hurt the team.

Members of great teams improve their relationships by holding one another accountable, thus demonstrating that they respect each other and have high expectations for one another’s performance.

One of the most valuable disciplines that any team can adopt takes just a few minutes and is absolutely free. At the end of a staff meeting or off-site, a team should explicitly review the key decisions made during the meeting, and agree on what needs to be communicated to employees or other constituencies about those decisions. What often happens during this exercise is that members of the team learn that they are not all on the same page about what has been agreed upon and that they need to clarify specific outcomes before putting them into action. More-over, they become clear on which of the decisions should remain confidential, and which must be communicated quickly and comprehensively. Finally, by leaving meetings clearly aligned with one another, leaders send a powerful and welcomed message to employees who have grown accustomed to receiving inconsistent and even contradictory statements from managers who attended the same meeting.

A team that avoids accountability . . .

  • Creates resentment among team members who have different standards of performance
  • Encourages mediocrity
  • Misses deadlines and key deliverables
  • Places an undue burden on the team leader as the sole source of discipline

A team that holds one another accountable . . .

  • Ensures that poor performers feel pressure to improve
  • Identifies potential problems quickly by questioning one another’s approaches without hesitation
  • Establishes respect among team members who are held to the same high standards
  • Avoids excessive bureaucracy around performance management and corrective action

How does a team go about ensuring accountability? The key to overcoming this dysfunction is adhering to a few classic management tools that are as effective as they are simple

Publication of Goals and Standards

good way to make it easier for team members to hold one another accountable is to clarify publicly exactly what the team needs to achieve, who needs to deliver what, and how everyone must behave in order to succeed

Simple and Regular Progress Reviews

Team members should regularly communicate with one another, either verbally or in written form, about how they feel their teammates are doing against stated objectives and standards. Relying on them to do so on their own, with no clear expectations or structure, is inviting the potential for the avoidance of accountability.

Team Rewards

By shifting rewards away from individual performance to team achievement, the team can create a culture of accountability. This occurs because a team is unlikely to stand by quietly and fail because a peer is not pulling his or her weight.

The Role of the Leader

encourage and allow the team to serve as the first and primary accountability mechanism

Connection to Dysfunction 5

If teammates are not being held accountable for their contributions, they will be more likely to turn their attention to their own needs, and to the advancement of themselves or their departments


The ultimate dysfunction of a team is the tendency of members to care about something other than the collective goals of the group. An unrelenting focus on specific objectives and clearly defined outcomes is a requirement for any team that judges itself on performance.

But what would a team be focused on other than results? Team status and individual status are the prime candidates:

Team status. For members of some teams, merely being part of the group is enough to keep them satisfied.

Individual status. This refers to the familiar tendency of people to focus on enhancing their own positions or career prospects at the expense of their team

it is important to note that many teams are simply not results focused. They do not live and breathe in order to achieve meaningful objectives, but rather merely to exist or survive

A team that is not focused on results . . .

  • Stagnates/fails to grow
  • Rarely defeats competitors
  • Loses achievement-oriented employees
  • Encourages team members to focus on their own careers and individual goals
  • Is easily distracted

A team that focuses on collective results . . .

  • Retains achievement-oriented employees
  • Minimizes individualistic behavior
  • Enjoys success and suffers failure acutely
  • Benefits from individuals who subjugate their own goals/interests for the good of the team
  • Avoids distractions

How does a team go about ensuring that its attention is focused on results? By making results clear, and rewarding only those behaviors and actions that contribute to those results

Public Declaration of Results

Teams that are willing to commit publicly to specific results are more likely to work with a passionate, even desperate desire to achieve those results. Teams that say, “We’ll do our best,” are subtly, if not purposefully, preparing themselves for failure

Results-Based Rewards

An effective way to ensure that team members focus their attention on results is to tie their rewards, especially compensation, to the achievement of specific outcomes. Relying on this alone can be problem-atic because it assumes that financial motivation is the sole driver of behavior. Still, letting someone take home a bonus merely for “trying hard,” even in the absence of results, sends a message that achieving the outcome may not be terribly important after all.

The Role of the Leader

Perhaps more than with any of the other dysfunctions, the leader must set the tone for a focus on results. If team members sense that the leader values anything other than results, they will take that as permission to do the same

Success is not a matter of mastering subtle, sophisticated theory, but rather of embracing common sense with uncommon levels of discipline and persistence

Following is a description of how she ran her staff after her initial team-building off-sites and the significant investment in time that it required

  • Annual planning meeting and leadership development retreats (three days, off-site) Topics might include budget discussions, major strategic planning overview, leadership training, succes-sion planning, and cascading messaging
  • Quarterly staff meetings (two days, off-site) Topics might include major goal reviews, financial review, strategic discussions, employee performance discussions, key issue resolution, team development, and cascading messages
  • Weekly staff meetings (two hours, on-site) Topics might include key activity review, goal progress review, sales review, customer review, tactical issue resolution, cascading messages
  • Ad hoc topical meetings (two hours, on-site) Topics might include strategic issues that cannot be adequately discussed during weekly staff meetings

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