We are all members of a team, whether at work, on a board of directors, a committee at our kid’s school, a sports team, your high school reunion, in our personal relationships, etc. In all my years, I have yet to hear of a team that was not dysfunctional in some way or another. However, until Catherine MacDonagh recommended The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, I had never realized that there is a simple solution for these dysfunctional teams. Note: I said “SIMPLE” not “EASY.”

The Model

  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 of 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 ensure 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 path 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 tea members put their individual needs (such as ego, career development, or recognition) or even the needs of their divisions above the collective goals for the team.

And so, like a chain with just one link broken, teamwork deteriorates if even a single dysfunction is allowed to flourish. (pp. 86-87)

Wow. That’s some truth. Catherine got me hooked on this book when she spoke of “artificial harmony.” Sit on that term for a moment and digest it. That’s what dysfunctional teams do:

  • We create artificial harmony.
  • We leave rooms unspoken.
  • We vote yes when we’re not ready to vote yes just so we can move along.
  • We don’t buy in, so we don’t do.
  • We go along with the group because we don’t want to create conflict.
  • Or, God forbid, have someone not like us.
  • We find ways of getting around the dysfunction, but all that does is create more dysfunction.
  • And, worse yet, we just accept it as a given.

We work at a law firm = we work in a dysfunction environment. But, as long as it isn’t as bad as the dysfunction of that firm over there, we’re doing okay. But we’re not. We, as members of the legal industry, just accept dysfunction as a given. That there is no way out. But this book gives me hope.

Another way to understand this model is to take the opposite approach – a positive one – and imagine how members of truly cohesive teams behave:

  1. They trust on another.
  2. They engage in unfiltered conflict around ideas.
  3. They commit to decisions and plans of action.
  4. They hold one another accountable for delivering against those plans.
  5. They focus on the achievement of collective results.

If this sounds simple, it’s because it is simple, at least in theory, In practice, however, it is extremely difficult because it required levels of discipline and persistence that few teams can muster, (p. 87).

So, there is hope for us. At the least, there’s a whole new consultancy practice waiting to be formed. Catherine???

  • Heather, glad you liked the book. I must say that it transformed the way I think about teams and the way I work with them – including my consulting clients. Whether it’s a management, department, process improvement project, client development or service team, the concepts and principles apply. But you have me excited about the idea of a more focused approach to this type of work. Certainly, the need and interest seem to be there! There is hope!

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  • Trained as a family therapist, I am facinated by the ways in which team and law firm dysfunction mirrors family dysfunction. Both systems follow a hierarchical structure. We also know that people tend to reinact the roles in their careers that were modeled to them in their family of origin. The hallmark of a dyfuctional family is lack of attachment/ committment, poor boundaries, distrust and, at worst, hostility and abusive behaviors. Sounds like some law firms I know of. The heliocopter parent becomes the micromanaging partner. The abusive spouse (or rebellious teen) becomes the hostile, temper-tantruming partner. The quiet, victimized child is the worn-down associate on the brink. Sound familiar? What other parallels have you experienced?