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Building Teams: Prescriptive Advice for Building Great Teams

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Building Teams:

Prescriptive Advice for Building Great Teams

Read the following previous parts to catch up on our journey.
Amateur Radio Clubs: Good to Great; Good to Gone; Lost in Mediocracy
Good To Great Part II: The Gift of Governor Rod Blagojevich
Good to Great Part III: Building the Team


In Collins book  Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap… and Others Don’t he gives some pretty simplistic advice – First who, then what.

That is, the priority of the right people over starting with direction and building the team around an already determined goal.  Get the right people on the team first and they will figure out the rest – and be able to compensate for changing internal and external circumstances.   In a word, “agility”.

The second part of Collins advice about teams– get the right people on the team,  get the right people in the right roles, and get the wrong people off the team.

Beyond Collins on Teams and Team Dynamics

Collins book is at a high corporate level.  He does not drill down into the more specific questions about how to find the right people or what the characteristics are of those individuals on great teams.  It really does beg the next set of questions.

How do successful teams function?  What are the signs of dysfunction on teams?   If you do find dysfunctions on a team then what are the mitigation strategies and tactics that you can put in place to remedy these dysfunctions?  In building a new team, can you come up with a prescriptive set of guidelines – ground rules – calibrations – on how the team will function given the common pitfalls that a team may encounter?

How can one benefit from what one can learn by studying cases from the success and failure of real teams?  There is no benefit in repeating the mistakes of others.  It’s all in the name of continuous improvement learned from past experience – yours and from other organizations.   “We don’t have time to make other peoples mistakes.”

The above questions are the theme of this posting.

The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni

Patrick Lencioni has written a book: The Five Dysfunctions of a Team:  A Leadership fable.

The book is told as a narrative, or story.  Some authors decide to communicate in this way.  For me, it was a difficult read since I have a preference for real stories about real companies and real people and how the behaviors, actions, decisions, processes, and so on led to certain outcomes for organizations.  These then become models to emulate, refine, or avoid.

I would not be writing about Lencioni’s book if I could not validate what he says by my own experience in the real world of corporate and team behavior.    The dysfunctions mentioned in this book are common.  It takes hard work to build a competent, efficient, and results-oriented team and Lencioni gets to the heart of the matter.

For the casual reader of this blog the goal of this posting is just to summarize what Lencioni has to say – mostly in his own words and add my comments – to perhaps get you interested.  Almost eveyone works on some sort of team in some time of their life – either now or in the future.  So, to the extent that everyone is a team member perhaps at some point  this posting will help facilitate understanding what is happening on your team – the good, the bad, and the consequences.

For team leaders I would recommend you read the book and apply what Lencioni has to say about teams in two ways.  First, use it as a diagnostic tool to evaluate your team against the Five Dysfunctions and appy the mitigation strategies that Lencioni recommends.

Second, if you are building a new team, use what Lencioni has to say as prescriptive advice at the outset – as a sort of proactive calibration – for all team members so you can avoid the dysfunctions that Lencioni identifies.

In both instances, benefit from the experience of others.  The team dynamics that Lencioni mentions are very real and very prevelent in all types of organizations.

Summary of the Five Dysfunctions of a Team

Dysfunction 1: Absence of (vulnerability-based) Trust

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

Lencioni points out that there are two definitions of trust.  One definition of trust is the trust of predictability.  In this use of the word, trust it means being able to predict a person’s behavior based on past experience.  That is, trust as predictability that if a person makes a promise they will deliver.  This is trust insofar as a person’s behavior is predictable with a high level of confidence based on past experience.

The definition of Trust that Lencioni wants to use goes far deeper than the definition above.

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. The vulnerabilities I’m referring to include weaknesses, skill deficiencies, interpersonal shortcomings, mistakes, and requests for help.

In my opinion, this is right on and it’s a tough one.  In my experience this is easier to achieve depending on the management level of the team and how long the team members have known each other.  The higher people are in the organization the more they understand team dynamics and how to work with each other – simply based on past experience and leaning by past mistakes and outcomes.

The key is to understand a team as a set of interlocking competencies.  So, knowing the “deficiencies” (that is not really the right term to use) of each of the team members is key such that other team members can compensate or perhaps mentor team members relative to their weaknesses.  One must not be “attacked” of diminished by thier weaknesses.  Use it as a learning and growth opportunity.

To be successful on the team that Lencioni is describing one must leave their egos at the door, admit their mistakes, admit their weaknesses, and engage the team where there competencies are strong, and rely on others to help team members where competencies are deficient.  This can be a challenge.  Especially for those with team members with big egos and the inability to “fail forward” using failure as an opportunity – or even admit failure.

Lencioni offers these characteristics of a team that lacks 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

How to overcome Absence of (vulnerability-based) Trust

If the team is new and the team members have little knowledge of each other, then to achieve vulnerability-based trust is going to be a long road.  It’s going to be a long road since people generally come to a new team with their “guard up”.  That is, most people want to size up the situation first before they want to disclose their  “weaknesses, skill deficiencies, interpersonal shortcomings, and mistakes”.  This only makes sense.  If the team is composed of individuals who know each other’s “life histories” then the team has at least  a good start.

In either case, the goal of achieving “vulnerability-based trust” would be transformative or prescriptive.  That is, the team members who know each other’s histories would have to take those histories into account and work to transform the team into this ability to have “vulnerability-based trust” with each other if this type of trust does not already exist.

For a new team “vulnerability-based trust” is prescriptive.  It should be set out as a goal to be achieved and made a personal commitment by everyone. Then the team members can demonstrate this commitment by telling stories about their history about their strengths, weaknesses, vulnerabilities, mistakes, successes, and so on.

To “open up” to “strangers” about these aspects of mistakes, vulnerabilities, weaknesses is one of the most difficult things new team members will have to do with each other.  But, if you set the expectation that these will not be used against each other – that this is a prescriptive exercise with the goal of determining  interlocking competencies –   then this exercise of telling stories of one’s life history of strengths, weaknesses, vulnerabilities, mistakes, and successes in their career becomes easier.

Here is a summary of a few of Lencioni recommendation – from least intrusive to most intrusive.

Personal Histories Exercise. In less than an hour, a team can take the first steps toward developing trust. 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. Simply by describing these relatively innocuous attributes or experiences, team members begin to relate to one another on a more personal basis, and see one another as human beings with life stories and interesting backgrounds.

Team Effectiveness Exercise. This exercise is more rigorous and relevant than the previous one, but may involve more risk. 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. Some of the most effective and lasting tools for building trust on a team are profiles of team members’ behavioral preferences and personality styles.  These help break down barriers by allowing people to better understand and empathize with one another.  For example, Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI)

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.

Dysfunction #2 – Fear of Conflict

This is a huge problem due to the desire of many people to protect social relationships.  What individuals and team sacrifice in this dysfunction of “Fear of Conflict” is coming up with the best decision, solution, or outcome for the organization.   The solution is, in part, to calibrate the team to understand that the goal is the best outcome for the organization.  And in this process some team members may have to submit thier personal egos and desires to a different perspective than what they desire.  And then these folks have to “get on board” and support the team decision.

A key phrase to look for in meeting notes is “… and there was a ‘spirited debate'”.  There is always a good story behind the ‘spirited debate’ and its a positive sign that the team is passionate about their teamwork.

Here is a tie back to Collins Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap… and Others Don’t

Collins tells the story of CEO Ken Iverson as a transformational leader.

… Iverson dreamed of building a great company, but refused to begin with “the answer” for how to get there.  Instead, he played the role of Socratic moderator in a series of raging debates.  “We established on ongoing series of general manager meetings and my role was more as a mediator,” commented Iverson.  “They were chaos. We would stay there for hours, ironing out the issues, until we came to something… At times, the meetings would get so violent that people almost went across the table at each other… People yelled.  They waved their arms around and pounded on the tables. Faces would get red and veins bulged out.

If you read the books and interviews of Jack Welch when he was CEO at GE you will find the same sentiment.  The value of open debate and lack of a fear of conflict on great teams.

According to Lencioni

Unfortunately, conflict is considered taboo in many situations, especially at work. And the higher you go up the management chain, the more you find people spending inordinate amounts of time and energy trying to avoid the kind of passionate debates that are essential to any great team.

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.

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.

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.

Suggestions for Overcoming Fear of Conflict

Mining: 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. This requires a degree of objectivity during meetings and a commitment to staying with the conflict until it is resolved.

Real-Time Permission: 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.

Dysfunction 3: Lack of Commitment

In this dysfunction Lencioni is referring to lack of commitment to clear and concise decisions on a timely basis – and we’ll add buy-in, support, and commitment by all the team members to decision through execution and followup.

There is another aspect of commitment that Lencioni does not mention.  And this is commitment if individual team members to the team.  In the real world, people get on teams because “they are available” – not because they have the requsite skills, competencies, of personal attributes to work as part of a team.  Simply, they are available.

If this is the case, then follow Collins advice – get those people off the team.  If your team is understaffed – keep looking.  One way to surely degrade a team is to have people who are not committed to the team, don’t have the skills or competencies to be on the team, and worse – don’t have the behaviors to cooperate in a team environment.

Here is what Lencioni has to say about commitment of the team to decisions.

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.

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.

Suggestions for Overcoming Lack of Commitment

Cascading Messaging: 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.

Deadlines: As simple as it seems, one of the best tools for ensuring commitment is the use of clear deadlines for when decisions will be made, and honoring those dates with discipline and rigidity. The worst enemy of a team that is susceptible to this dysfunction is ambiguity, and timing is one of the most critical factors that must be made clear. What is more, committing to deadlines for intermediate decisions and milestones is just as important as final deadlines, because it ensures that misalignment among team members is identified and addressed before the costs are too great.

Contingency and Worst-Case Scenario Analysis: A team that struggles with commitment can begin overcoming this tendency by briefly discussing contingency plans up front or, better yet, clarifying the worst-case scenario for a decision they are struggling to make.

Dysfunction 4: Avoidance of Accountability

This dysfunction is closely related to the dysfunction of  “fear of conflict”.  Fear of conflict is going to naturally exacerbate this necessary and unavoidable task of holding people accountable for their behaviors, results, deliverable, and commitments.

Fear of conflict and avoidance of accountability is going to form a deadly synergy that will reinfornce both dysfunctions.  Who will really lose?  The organization in which this team resides.  In this, not holding team members accountable trades personal comfort of not holding folks accountable in favor of undermining the organization.

Here is what Lencioni has to say

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. Members of great teams overcome these natural inclinations, opting instead to “enter the danger” with one another.

In fact, 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.

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

Lencioni  makes a big assumption here.  That is, that peer pressure is an effective method of making people accountable.  This presupposes that team member respect other members on the team.

In actual practice, in teams that are ‘assembled” based on availability and little else, it is a leap that team members respect each other unless this is tested and validated.

Peer pressure does not work if team members do not respect each other.  Whether peer pressure works or not on a team could be used as a measure of the respect of team members to each other, how much a team member is committed to team decisions, and whether the “unaccountable” team member has the best interest of the organization as the highest priority over self-interest.

Suggestions for Overcoming Avoidance of Accountability

Publication of Goals and Standards A 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. The enemy of accountability is ambiguity.

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.

Dysfunction 5: Inattention to Results

If you watched the TV series The Apprentice with Donald (“You’re Fired!”) Trump then you know Carolyn Kepcher.  Kepcher was Trumps (“She’s now fired!”) assistant.  Carolyn wrote a book: Carolyn 101: Business Lessons from The Apprentice’s Straight Shooter (Paperback)

In this book she tells the story of a mid level manager hired by the Trump organization that was so fascinated that he had a business card that showed that he worked for the Trump Organization that he forgot that he had business responsibilities.  In essence, this person, first and foremost, wanted a status symbol – to be part of, and tell people, he was working for and with Trump.  Hard work was apparently not in the picture.  From Carolyn 101:

During my decade with The Trump Organization I have observed a curious variation of this physhological phenomenon.  I call it “kissing the gold-lettered business card.”  This is a reference to the fact that on all Trump Organization business cards, the word TRUMP is embossed across the top in gold capital letters… I’ve seen people get so carried away by the fact they work for Trump that they actually forget to work.  Needless to say they don’t last long.”

I’ve observed a similar phenomenon when meeting people in all high-end, top-notch organizations.  Some of them fall so in love with the prestige of the organization that they view it as simply an extension of their own egos.

Rather than regard themselves as being in service of the organization, the regard the organization as being in service to them.

Here is what Lencioni has to say:

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

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. For them, the achievement of specific results might be desirable, but not necessarily worthy of great sacrifice or inconvenience. As ridiculous and dangerous as this might seem, plenty of teams fall prey to the lure of status.

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. Though all human beings have an innate tendency toward self-preservation, a functional team must make the collective results of the group more important to each individual than individual members’ goals.

Suggestions for Overcoming Inattention to Results

Public Declaration of Results. For most teams, however, it can be helpful to make public proclamations about intended success.  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

The Synergy of Dysfunctions

A real value of Lencioni’s analysis is how he shows how these dysfunctions act in a synergy  That is, the the sum of any number of these dysfunctions is more than the sum of its parts.  There is a sort of multiplicity effect where one dysfunction leads to another and multiplies the effect.

Here is how these dysfunctions work in synergy for exponential effect.

  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 divisions above the collective goals of the team.

And so, like a chain with just one link broken, teamwork deteriorates if even a single dysfunction is allowed to flourish.

The Role of the Leader

“Be a yardstick of quality.  Some people aren’t used to an environment where excellence is expected.”

— Seve Jobs from Inside Steve’s Brain by Leander Kahney

We can tie all this back to what Collins found in sustainable great companies.  It’s about leadership and people.  It’s about the culture in which this is all embedded.  The right people in the right roles and the wrong people out of the organization.

If too many of the wrong people get  into leadership positions the culture can be come a poison.  What happens when good people get into bad corporate cultures?  There is a saying:  There are no bad apples, just bad barrels”.

People with weak character often get caught in bad barrels and are taken down.  One may see this phenonemon played out in the Blagojevish scandal in Chicago.  How many good people are going to be taken down as part of a culture of scandal and underhanded political dealings?

For the matter at hand and the Five Disfunctions of a Team that Lencioni identifies – what is the role of the team leader?

In all the cases, the leader has to model the way.  For the dysfunction of lack of vulnerable-bases trustthe leader has to create an environment that does not punish vulnerability, admission of weakness or failure.  For the dysfunction of fear of conflictthe leader has to encourage productive conflict ensuring that all opinions are on the table and discussed to closure – then get buy-in and commitment from everyone through execution and followup.  For the dysfunction of lack of commitment the leader has to ensure that expectations are clear.  For the dysfunction of avoidance of accountability the leader must create a culture of accountability of team members to each other.  The test of the success of this is when members feel obligated to each other and are accountable driven by the desire not to let the team down as opposed to being driven by an external force of punishment.  For the dysfunction of inattention to resultsthe leader must set the tone for focus on results, reward individuals on the basis of team (not individual) results, and make a clear commitment to publish team accomplishments to stakeholders and other constituencies.

The “Get”

The “get” on this posting is this.  Strong leadership is critical to the success of an organization be in a profit or non-profit organization.  To the extent that leadership fails to establish trust, eliminate fear of conflict, avoids issues of commitment, fails to hold people accountable, and does not attend to results the organization will fail.  Who are the victims?  In a non-profit the victim is the organizations mission and constituency – at the convenience of leaders that do not have the strength of character to confront, head on, organizational dysfunctions and persist to resolution.

Maybe it a hard message to hear.  But to the extent these problems are not addressed in a timely manner the problems grow to the point that these dysfunctions become endemic to an organization.  There may be a point of no return.

This blog is being written near Chicago, Illinois.  There are several major corporations that are headquartered in or near Chicago.  We keep track of some of the “local talent” (CEO’s) that come and go.  Crains Chicago Business has many interesting stories to tell.  In the Resources section below you will find the story of CEO Ed Zander when he took over Motorola and what he found in the corporate culture and the changes he put in place.

So, Good to Great?  Only possible with strong leadership.


Crains Chicago Business: Ed Zanders Motorola: How a brash new CEO tore down walls – and much of Moto’s musty culture
The Five Dysfunctions of a Team:  A Leadership fable.
Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap… and Others Don’t
Carolyn 101: Business Lessons from The Apprentice’s Straight Shooter (Paperback)
Inside Steve’s Brain by Leander Kahney


Written by frrl

December 24, 2008 at 4:39 am

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