The Five Dysfunctions of a Team


  1. Abscence of Trust
  2. Fear of Conflict
  3. Lack of Commitment
  4. Avoidance of Accountability
  5. Inattention to Results

Absence of Trust

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.

It requires team members to make themselves vulnerable to one another, and be confident that their respective vulnerabilities will not be used against them.

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.

Fear of Conflict

All great relationships require productive conflict in order to grow. This is true in marriage, parenthood, friendship, and certainly business.

It is important to distinguish productive ideological conflict from destructive fighting and interpersonal politics. 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.

But teams that engage in productive conflict know that the only purpose is to produce the best possible solution ​in the shortest period of time. They discuss and resolve issues more quickly and completely than others, and they emerge from heated debates with no residual feelings or collateral damage, but with an eagerness and readiness to take on the next important issue.

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.

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.

Lack of Commitment

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

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​.

Avoidance of Accountability

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.

The essence of this dysfunction is the unwillingness of team members to tolerate the interpersonal discomfort that accompanies calling a peer on his or her behavior and the ​more general tendency to avoid difficult conversations.

Team members who are particularly close to one another sometimes hesitate to hold one another accountable precisely because they fear jeopardizing a valuable personal relationship. Ironically, this only causes the relationship to deteriorate as team members begin to resent one another for not living up to expectations and for allowing the standards of the group to erode. 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.

As politically incorrect as it sounds, the most effective and efficient means of maintaining high standards of performance on a team is peer pressure. One of the benefits is the reduction of the need for excessive bureaucracy around performance management and corrective action. More than any policy or system, there is nothing like the fear of letting down respected teammates that motivates people to improve their performance.

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.

One of the most difficult challenges for a leader who wants to instill accountability on a team is to encourage and allow the team to serve as the first and primary accountability mechanism.

Inattention to Results

The ultimate dysfunction of a team is the tendency of members to care about something other than the collective goals of the group.

Every good organization specifies what it plans to ​achieve in a given period, and these goals, more than the financial metrics that they drive, make up the majority of near-term, controllable results.

A team that is not focused on results:

  • Stagnates/fails to grow,
  • Rarely defeats competitor,
  • 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.
Last modified: 1 January 0001