Characteristics of dysfunctional teams

[Credit: This post refers to a book by Patrick Lencioni, one of the most influencial books I have read in my life. From Wikipedia: ‘The Five Dysfunctions of a Team is a bestselling[1] business book by consultant and speaker Patrick Lencioni. It describes the many pitfalls that teams face as they seek to “row together”‘]

In my last post about characteristics of high-performance teams, I discussed the tenets of high-performance teams (as given by The Wisdom of Teams). In this post, I want to discuss the characteristics of a dysfunctional team, as defined by The five dysfunctions of a team, a fable about a dysfunctional leadership team, and compare and contrast them with tenets of a high-performance team where I can.

Here are the five dysfunctions of a team (from Wikipedia article about the book):

  1. Absence of Trust: Trust is critical in building a high-performance team and lack of trust is very visible in a dysfunctional team. Most telltale sign of lack of trust is that no one would bring up any issue/problems which will show him/her weak or vulnerable. ‘Having the guard on all the time’ is a characteristic of a team member in a dysfunctional team. I remember my experience with a leadership team; even though the project was in very bad shape, the manager in charge would always talk about great things the team was accomplishing and any uttering by other team members to the contrary was termed by the leader as ‘lack of team work’! Needless to say, there was no trust in the team.
  2. Fear of Conflict: Fear of conflict means that conversation and feedback cannot be candid and difficult questions can’t be asked, because they can give rise to conflicts. This in turn happens because lack of trust causes people to suspect the motive of the person doing the questioning/commenting and it becomes a personal matter rather than team’s.
  3. Lack of Commitment: Lack of commitment from the team members is a dangerous problem in a dysfunctional team. Because of fear of conflict and lack of trust, most decisions do not get discussed enough, team members feel they have not been heard, and hence they do not buy-into the decision being made. This lack of buy-in causes the lack of commitment among team members. This in turn gives rise to situations where even though the team (or leadership team) has taken a decision but the actions of individuals in the team seem to oppose the decision. The team is deemed incompetent and ‘lost’ and loses the respect of their peers and reports.
  4. Avoidance of Accountability: Lack of commitment and lack of thorough discussions/buy-in fosters a culture where individuals and the team shies away from being accountable for their actions, blaming all failures and problems on others in the team or to external factors (senior management and market conditions are my all-time favorites). Since team members do not challenge each other for the fear of being misunderstood (first 2 dysfunctions), this creates a team which keeps discussing the problems and failures as if someone else caused it and remain blissfully ignorant of how dysfunctional they are. When this happens in a leadership team, problem becomes acute because there is no one else to guide and correct them, or to hold them accountable. For regular teams, this gives becomes visible in lack of results and focus.
  5. Inattention to Results: This is by-product of rest of the dysfunctions. When there is no accountability and no commitment to decisions, results suffer, and what is more, with no one to hold anyone accountable within the team (lack of mutual accountability), no one will even discuss failures. For an outsider listening in, it may look like a great team functioning well (no arguments, no heated debates, lots of talk of accomplishments). This is also the best way to identify a dysfunctional team; just watch the kind of discussions happening in the team over a period of time, and try to compare it with the results of this team. High-performance teams have heated debates, passionate arguments, and lots of good results; dysfunctional teams have polite conversations, ‘presentation’ of accomplishments, and very few good results to show.

My experiences with dysfunctional teams have been at various levels (more than what I wanted!), but most notable has been the one at the leadership level. Our team displayed all of the above characteristics, even though, there were some root causes and some secondary effects. In my mind (and based on my experience), lack of trust and avoidance of accountability were the two biggest issues. And it is true for most dysfunctional teams. If these two can be addressed and resolved, rest of the dysfunctions can be fixed easily. In my case, we tried hard to address the issue of trust, but couldn’t get the team (and leader) to agree that accountability is even a problem in this team. Our efforts at fixing the problems were not very effective.

What I learned most through these experiences has been how to identify that I had a dysfunctional team on my hand and not dysfunctional people. I started off by assuming that I must be doing things wrong because I couldn’t believe that the team and the individuals could respond in the way they were doing to my candor during team meetings. So I tried to learn how to give feedback better, how to use data to present your case rather than opinions, how to build relations before giving feedback (my manager’s advice) . While these lessons helped me as an individual, they didn’t improve the situation in anyway and I continued to be frustrated. Only when I started giving up (and hence could look at meetings dispassionately and analyze it) and also started attending some MBA classes did I realize that the team dynamics were causing me to fail and not necessarily the person(s) I was trying to interact with.

In the next post, I will discuss some of the lessons learned from this soul-searching journey; hopefully it will be useful to others. Stay tuned.

5 thoughts on “Characteristics of dysfunctional teams

    1. To be clear, the post weaves what the book talks about with my interpretation and personal experience of situations similar to the one described in the book. Surely, the book is Patrick Lencioni’s. It isn’t the intent of the post to deny the credit, I assumed that linking to the book and the wikipedia article is enough. But may be it is not enough if you think differently. I have added explicit credit at the top of the post to be sure. If you have comments on the content of this post, I will be very interested in hearing about it.

  1. hi Mrityunjay , can you share your experience on how to handle lack of trust in teams ?

    1. Hi Ashwini,

      Handling lack of trust is a tricky issue and very context-sensitive as you can imagine. In my experience, when I am in a team where team members don’t have high level of trust among themselves and in the leader, I have tried to fix the problem at least for myself. I have tried to build my trusted relationships with key people in the team (and sometimes with everyone when the team has been small) and made sure at least I have a trusted relationship with a few key folks I need to work closely with (or I need support from for my work). I was surprised when I found that I could maintain my 1-1 trusted relationships well even while overall team trust level kept deteriorating. In building those relationships, it helped to apply the basic principle of ‘do unto others what you want done to you’ – I opened up, unsolicited, with my issues, concerns and fears, and offered my support to their work and showed a genuine desire to help them succeed. Most people reciprocated in the same way.
      Hope it helps.

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