Being triggered by a colleague to read a book called “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team”, as well as remembering it being referenced in a book I read earlier this year, titled “The Phoenix Project”, I set myself to tackling the 230 or so pages that make it up. The main body of the book is comprised of a story about a new CEO for a tech company that is brought in to reforge their current team of C-level managers into a coherent group with their noses pointing in the same direction. Very similar to the story style of the Phoenix Project, it is clear to see the heavy influence on its writer, Gene Kim in terms of spinning an interesting tale. It is a compelling story for those in the consultancy business, and the patterns are easily detectable in a large number of companies. And while the last chapter of the book does offer some techniques for remedying this phenomenon, it does not do a deep dive into a methodology that approach it. There are additional books by the same author that go deeper into detail, such as “Overcoming the Five Dysfunctions of a Team”.

Applying the organizational theory as postulated by William Richard Scott, professor emeritus in sociology at Stanford University, it is important to realize the book primarily addresses teams in a rational organization. He defines organizations as follows:

Organizations are conceived as social structures, created by individuals to support the collaborative pursuit of specified goals.

In essence, organizations consist of members that coordinate their behavior in order to accomplish shared goals or to put out a product or service. They contain roles, rules, and clear boundaries of where a group starts and ends. Three types of organizations are determined by him, each with their own particularities: Rational, Natural and Open. Examples of these types of organizations are respectively a traditional for-profit company, a government, and a highly diversified conglomeration. An overview of the most differentiating characteristics per type can be seen in the table below:


As the typical enterprises of today are still in a rational structure, the lessons that can be derived from the book are very relevant. They become more complicated when looking at natural organizations. These organizations are characterized by ever-changing groupings of teams and collaborations within themselves and makes improvement techniques such as defining your primary team a lot trickier, forcing the reapplication of these techniques at an elevated frequency. Another nomenclature for this type of structure is the quantum organization as defined in the book “Quantum Organizations” by Ralph Kilmann and referenced by Keith Swenson in the book “Social BPM” or the Holacracy management system coined by Brian J. Robertson in his book with the same name.

Coming back to the model described in the book to chart and tackle the dysfunctions within team, it is visualized as a pyramid where each value needed in teams is correlated to a dysfunction the team needs to recognize and resolve. This pyramid can be found in the website of The Table Group of which Patrick Lencioni, the author, is the founder.


Screenshot taken from Table Group website

Absence of Trust

Trust is the foundation for any team performing as a cohesive group. The team needs to trust one another enough to risk owning up and discussing their mistakes and weaknesses. This is needed to create the necessary trust to be willing to have conflict and disagreements with each other in order to come to valuable insights and results. This is often exacerbated by self-doubt and hinders the team members from seeking each other’s help. Realizing there are things you don’t know or aren’t succeeding in should trigger team members to own up to this fact and try to resolve this as a team effort. The sooner help is sought out after this realization, the more efficient the team will work. But this works in the other direction as well: Have enough trust in team members to figure things out for themselves and get the job done. The idea is not to force your expertise onto other members of your team, but to offer it freely when asked for.

A worthwhile exercise is to determine the broad characteristics of each team member, what their strengths and weaknesses are, and how to go about communicating with people that act on different paradigms. There are multiple ways of drawing up a broad profile of the members in your team. The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) is a stock standard way of charting this, categorizing people on the four principal psychological functions (sensation, intuition, feeling, and thinking) which gives us 16 distinct personality types, each with their typical strengths and weaknesses. Other common profiling tools are the Business Insights analysis, Everything DiSC or even the Interpersonal Circumplex (also known as the Rose of Leary).


Myers-Briggs Type Indicator Personality Types (taken from Adioma blogpost)

When there are clear key figures within the team, they can further this trust through demonstrating vulnerability first. When these key figures of the team are open about their own weaknesses but also strengths, this behavior will become more natural and acceptable to other members of the team that might not yet have had experience with this openness. When considering George Kohlrieser’s Secure Base Leadership paradigm, he would phrase it as such: A Secure Base Leader builds trust, delivers change and inspires the focus that people need to actively engage in their work and create conditions for innovation. Secure Base Leaders generate high performance by acting as a “secure base” for the people they lead.

Fear of Conflict

When there is no trust, there is no fertile ground for discussion within the group that may result in open conflict as understandings and opinions might differ. These discussions are necessary to come to a mutual conclusion in how to approach and resolve the vision set forth by the group. This discussion gives a platform for every member of the group to be heard and increases buy-in drastically. The idea is similar to the thesis-antithesis-synthesis concept of Johann Gottlieb Fichte, the German philosopher, who postulated such a progression of ideas to come to the best solution for any problem or proposition.

The meeting culture in most companies is a very good example of this. They are mostly led by the organizer trying to convey information of his point of view in an almost ex cathedra capacity, with very little interactions between those attending the meeting. There will some vocal members, but the majority will sit there accepting what is being told at face value. While some meetings are all about disseminating information, most of them are organized with the idea of getting to a consensus about certain topics.

A good meeting culture greatly enhances the productivity of such meetings. Always keep in mind that all meetings should have each of these characteristics (to be added to the meeting request):

  • Context: what is the meeting about? And what will the mindset (informative/collaborative/…) be?
  • Goals: what will be the results of this meeting?
  • Added Value: an indication of why each of the invited people to this meeting are there.
  • Agenda: A clear agenda of how the meeting will progress.

Lack of Commitment

When members of the team do not participate in such discussions, they often feel erroneously that their ideas are spurned by the rest of the group, growing resentment, as well as failing to get their buy-in for the chosen approach. This resentment might even fester into subconscious attempts to disrupt the efforts of the team in the spirit of a “I knew it wouldn’t work”-reasoning. The two most contributing factors to commitment or lack thereof are consensus and certainty on future actions.

Consensus amongst team members on how to do things might look desirable. If everyone agrees, the lack of commitment should not exist. However, such a consensus is not always achieved and striving for it might lead the team into an impasse. Especially when having to take decisions that are limited by deadlines. In these cases, once all arguments have been presented and no more avenues of discussion are open, a leader should make a decision and the rest of the team should abide by it. This uniting behind the banner of the chosen route is where certainty comes in. Even when members do not agree, they should realize that similar to playing chess: A bad plan is better than no plan at all. So even if they do not fully agree with the decision, the alternative of no decision at all is worse.

One way to get consensus is to quantify people’s opinions on the possible decisions. For example, when choosing a specific solution to a problem like which technology to use for an implementation. This is done by first establishing a list of properties a solution should adhere to. Next, we weigh these properties on a scale of 1 to 5. Then each team member gives points on that same scale for each solution. The average of these attributed values is multiplied by its weighing factor and all the weighed values are added for a total score of the solution. Whichever solution holds the highest score is the solution the team will go with. There are some caveats as we need to make sure that each of the possible solution does indeed cover all requirements and there are no showstoppers associated with this solution. But this will give an overview like the one below.

  Weight Framework #1 Framework #2 Framework #3
Property #1 3 4+3+3 2+2+2 3+4+5
Property #2 2 2+3+4 3+2+3 3+4+5
Property #3 4 2+1+2 4+2+3 2+5+4
Property #4 5 3+3+3 3+5+4 3+3+4
Property #5 1 4+5+2 5+4+4 2+2+4
Total   124 143 162

Avoidance of Accountability

Another subconscious result to not being heard and having the proper buy-in for the chosen approach, is not feeling accountable for it. This is twofold: On the one hand, one might not be inclined to call into question the tasks he/she is performing in the approach, and on the other hand the adoption of a laissez-faire attitude towards efforts of team members that could be counter-productive. Or even a lackluster remark on these efforts that could be construed as a passive-aggressive comment from someone who isn’t pulling his or her weight in the approach. The interpersonal discomfort that calling out other team members might cause is often a deterrent from this type of peer performance questioning.

Some mitigating actions can be taken to reduce this level of discomfort by doing regular progress updates on the team efforts. In this way issues can be brought to the group and in this way mentioned. This does pose the danger of the team member whose progress is called on feels like the rest of the team ganging up on him. Other ways of dealing with this is to stipulate goals and standards from the very start of the team effort. If everyone knows what standards to follow and what results to attain there is afterwards less of a fuss on whether or not the team goals have been reached.

Another popular set of techniques stemming from 1994 called the Oz Principle tells us that self-management of your accountability can be done through these straightforward steps: See It, Own It, Solve It, and Do It. If these steps are applied, you will remain above the line and achieve desired business results. Consequently, the opposing actions will push you below the line with a negative impact on these business results. To state it more elaborately: Everyone needs to recognize and acknowledge a situation going wrong (See It). Then an honest self-appraisal of one’s own part in the situation as well as that of other members of your team (Own It). When this appraisal of the problem has been executed, you and your team should think of all possible solutions and weight them for success rate and applicability (Solve It). The final step is to muster the courage and commitment of all involved to actually implement the solution(s) you have decided upon.


Inattention to Results

The final dysfunction is that team members are not committed enough to the decided upon approach to give it their full backing. Often, they might prioritize their personal goals (such as career opportunities of reputation) over the success of the approach and the collective goals of the team. As with all dysfunctions, this one is caused and augmented by the others. The lack of buy-in and not being convinced of the chosen direction for the team makes one question its eventual results and how this reflects on him. One way to combat this has been the time-honored result-based rewards, linked the success of the team to the evaluation of the individual. However, scientific research has indicated that for knowledge worker or creative endeavors rewarding good results has a negative effect on performance. Those interested in this phenomenon should watch Dan Pink’s TED talk on the subject back in 2009. He states several scientific studies demonstrating this principle.

Coming back to the MBTI personalities, this result-driven attitude does not come naturally to all types of people. This personality trait is associated in the highest degree with the Commander/Field Marshall personality and in various degrees to the others. In DiSC they are one of the four possible categories: Dominance (Green). In Business Insights, these are the Fiery Red personalities or the Directors, Motivators and Reformers.


Take from this book what you will. It certainly isn’t a fix-all model, but then what model is? If it works for your team use it. If it kind of works for your team, tweak it. If it doesn’t fit your team dynamic at all, go for something else. There is potential here to be wielding for greater team results if used with common sense.

Peter is a Solution Architect with firm roots in the Java technosphere, but with a wide interest in all things architecture. His areas of specialization include Service Oriented Architectures, Business Process Management and Security.