December 01, 2023

Fix the 5 Dysfunctions of a Team and Become Unstoppable

Graphic featuring photo of Scot and the text

What You’ll Learn

Most teams are dysfunctional. 🤬

Sorry, it’s true. But don’t take it from me. One of my favorite business authors, Patrick Lencioni, wrote a whole book about it called The Five Dysfunctions of a Team.

So, if you think your team could be working better together, this article’s for you. I’ll dive into each of Lencioni’s 5 dysfunctions of a team, and then provide guidance and simple exercises to fix each one.

Follow these steps, and your team will be a well-oiled machine in no time.

What Makes a Team Dysfunctional

In the high-stakes world of startups and business leadership, understanding the dynamics of your team isn’t a nice to have – it’s mission critical.

“If you get all the people in an organization rowing in the same direction, you could dominate any industry, in any market, against any competition, at any time.”

Patrick Lencioni

Teams are made up of a collection of individuals with their own experiences, ideas, strengths, and weaknesses. Bringing these together in such a way that maximizes the output of the group is not an easy thing to do. 

But as the leader, you must act as the architect of collaboration and teamwork. This isn’t cheerleading. It’s understanding the common dysfunctions that plague teams and making moves to counteract these destructive human dynamics. 

Ask yourself these questions: 

  • Do individual members openly share their opinions with the team? 
  • Are your team meetings productive? 
  • Is it easy for your team to make decisions without pushback? 
  • Does your team give and receive constructive feedback well? 
  • Do team members sacrifice individual ideas or interests for the good of the team? 

No team is perfect, but the most successful businesses answer each of these with a “yes” (at least, the vast majority of the time). 

Most likely, you’re one of the many teams that answers “no” to at least a few of these. Nothing to fear here, but it’s time to get to work. 

The first step is understanding the 5 dysfunctions of a team at a deep level. 

  1. Lack of Trust
  2. Fear of Conflict
  3. Lack of Commitment
  4. Lack of Peer-to-Peer Accountability
  5. Lack of focus on Team Results 

You can think of the five dysfunctions as a pyramid, where trust lays the foundation for everything above it. But without addressing each dysfunction one by one, your pyramid (your team) is at serious risk of imploding. 

Once you understand the pitfalls, you can start counteracting those human dynamics through careful planning, group exercises and direct feedback. It’s not about being perfect all the time. It’s about self-awareness and continuous improvement.

Dysfunction #1: Lack of Trust

Frankly, most teams don’t trust each other.

A lack of trust in one another can quickly lead to the team hiding mistakes, hesitating to ask for help, or straight-up drama (talking about each other behind backs). 

For a business to be successful, trust is imperative. Compared with people at low-trust companies, people at high-trust companies reported:

  • 50% higher productivity
  • 106% more energy at work
  • 74% less stress
  • 76% more engagement
  • 13% fewer sick days
  • 40% less burnout

Trust matters. 

My early teams struggled with trust issues. Egos got in the way, issues began to fester under the surface, and we became pretty dysfunctional. 

Until I found this simple trust-building exercise, which I’ve now repeated dozens of times because it works!

Exercise to boost empathy & trust:

Take 15-20 minutes at the start of any longer team meeting, like leadership off-sites or strategy sessions. Warn everyone that you’ll get a bit personal – but it’ll be fun.

Then, go around the room and ask each person these four questions:

I. Where did you grow up? Help them expand by asking a few more questions, like what was it like? Did you move as a kid? Or, how long have you lived there? Nothing helps you empathize with people more than understanding their upbringing.

II. How many siblings do you have? Are their siblings older or younger? What was it like being the youngest, middle, oldest, or only child? This context helps humanize your co-workers.

III. What sport or hobby did you love growing up? Let them get specific. Did you play in high school/college? How did you get into it? Do you still play? Sports/hobbies are often easy to find in common and build stronger relationships, and deeper-rooted relationships = more trust. 

IV. What’s a big challenge you’ve overcome in your life? This is the question where people really open up. It’s critical for the group to listen attentively and not judge. Don’t break trust before it’s even built!
Connection to team dysfunction #2: The only way to have positive conflict – yes, that’s a thing – is to have trust first.

Connection to team dysfunction #2: The only way to have positive conflict – yes, that’s a thing – is to have trust first.

Dysfunction #2: Fear of Conflict

Healthy tension and debates are critical for growth. 

And yet, common wisdom teaches that conflict is bad and only brings negativity to the team. So, naturally, we avoid it. 

But that only creates a fake sense of harmony and ultimately allows tension to fester and teamwork to falter. 

Overcoming the fear of conflict starts with understanding that not all conflict is harmful and can be productive when working as a team.

Here’s an exercise that can help your team get used to healthy conflict & debate. 

Exercise to normalize healthy conflict:

First, single out a difficult decision you’ve been trying to make. 

Assign two people to take opposite sides in the decision and give them five minutes each to debate their case. While this creates conflict, it’s constructive. 

Then, have the rest of the team weigh in with their thoughts on the debate, answering questions like:

  • What side made the most impactful points?
  • Does one decision impact the business more positively than the other?
  • Can both sides find a compromise that might work best? 

This type of debate and open communication typically leads to an approach that’s even better than the two that were debated. Sometimes taking the best of both and combining it into something totally new.

If you’ve got a stalemate, then the leader makes the final call. 

Connection to team dysfunction #3: You will only get people to fully commit if they are given a say in team decisions.  

Dysfunction #3: Lack of Commitment 

Team unity hinges on individual commitment… Specifically, each team member is committed to the decisions made by the group (or the leader). 

If a decision is made by the team, then everyone should accept and commit to supporting it. Unfortunately, this is rarely the case in most teams.

It’s common for team members to say they agree at the group level (to everyone’s face) but then do differently in practice because they silently (or not so silently) disagree. 

According to Lencioni in The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, you have to have clarity and buy-in to get everyone to agree that the decision is the best for the business. Lack of clarity leads to doubt, which inevitably halts buy-in. 

To do this, it’s best to have the team feel like they were involved in the decision-making process. 

Even if their recommendation wasn’t chosen, they played a part in working through things with the team and are much more likely to commit their support to whatever is chosen.

Exercise to boost buy-in:

his exercise aims to create more buy-in through a strategy session that allows each team member to recommend a strategic initiative (step 1).

Have each individual then write a 1-page memo defending their idea and facilitate a collaborative discussion around each. 

After every team member says their piece and the team weighs in, rank the initiatives based on a scoring system. This can include strength in argument, time and resources needed to execute, business impact, etc. 

The team leader then gathers all the information discussed and makes the final call. 

Connection to team dysfunction #4: If goals aren’t clear enough to get buy-in and commitment, those individuals also can’t be held accountable for poor results. 

Dysfunction #4: Lack of Peer-to-Peer Accountability

Every team is only as strong as their weakest link.

It’s not uncommon to develop close relationships on a working team, and the fear of damaging those relationships is typically why close colleagues (even friends) hesitate to call each other out. 

But in reality, not keeping your peers accountable will have the opposite effect on both your personal relationship and the business.  

Lack of P2P accountability almost always leads to: 

  • Ignored bad behavior
  • Weak tracking against goals
  • No action is taken if falling behind

It also creates a dynamic where the leader has to act as a top-down policing function. A much healthier dynamic is for everyone to be open and communicative about lifting each other up when they see someone struggling.

Exercise to create P2P accountability:

Develop a peer review process that includes a weekly meeting to review the status of your team goals. 

In this meeting, each person gives a brief update on how they’re tracking against their own goals. Use a simple green, yellow, and red status update. Green means you’re on pace, yellow means you’re slightly behind pace, and red means you are well off pace. 

If someone reports that they’re falling behind, the group supports this person by helping them with a plan to get back on track. I call it “get to green.” The job of the team isn’t just to keep their own goals in the green. It’s to help everyone else stay green, too.

Connection to team dysfunction #5: Lack of accountability among team members can lead to a detachment from the team goals.

Dysfunction #5: Lack of Focus on Team Results

One team, one dream.

This was the motto we had at my first company, Classy. And the idea was simple: if the team fails, we all fail. 

If people are too fixated on their own goals, you open the door for serious misalignment across the organization. And you’re creating an environment that breeds and even rewards prima donnas.

How to create more focus on team:

First, the leader must make sure that each individual’s goals align with the team’s. I recommend that each individual creates their own goals, but then the leader must inspect and approve each person’s goals. 

When they are approving the goals, they are focused on 

  1. the difficulty level (they should be challenging but achievable)
  2. the alignment with the team goals (they need to fully support the team’s goals)

On top of that, I like to tie financial incentives to team goals to get people to focus EVEN MORE on team results. 

You can do this through a team-wide bonus plan. Each individual team member gets a bonus for the team hitting its goals. You can also design it where the individual earns 50% of their bonus for hitting their own goals, and 50% for the team hitting its goals. 

Trust me, people care A LOT more about the team goals if they’re being rewarded for achieving them.

Fixing all 5 dysfunctions of a team:

“A fractured team is just like a broken arm or leg; fixing it is always painful, and sometimes you have to rebreak it to make it heal correctly. And the rebreak hurts a lot more than the initial break because you have to do it on purpose.”

Patrick Lencioni

Your team might be dysfunctional, but it’s fixable. Working through these five dysfunctions is a long and sometimes grueling process, but it’s imperative for success. Getting to the end of this article is a huge first step. I’m rooting for you!

How I can help you… 

Are you a founder, executive, or manager? I’d love to support your professional growth. 

Here are three ways: 

  1. Connect on LinkedIn and Instagram – where I post practical tips about leadership and startups every day.
  1. Subscribe to my free newsletter – where I go deep on a variety of management and operations topics that will make you a better leader & operator. 
  2. Join Highland – my executive coaching program for founders, where we help you become a top-tier CEO who can scale into the tens of millions & beyond.

Want access to the full article?

Join 100,000+ leaders getting the blueprint to go from $0 to $100M.

Hi, I’m Scot — Join 100,000+ leaders getting
the blueprint to go from $0 to $100M.

Read Story arrow

You might also like...

5 steps to $100M in revenue

June 07, 2024 | Uncategorized

5 Steps to Scale to $100M & Beyond

If you watch one thing this week, this should be it 👇 Ever feel like you’re working your ass off, but not making any real progress? It happens to the best of us. In the...

May 24, 2024 | Uncategorized

7 Company Culture Killers and What to Do About Them

Culture is a lagging indicator Culture is the heart of any strong company. When you get it right, it’s like a magnet for positive progress – it’ll attract great people, great customers, and new ideas....

Thank you for subscribing!

I'd love to learn more about you to better customize the tips I send, ensuring they are as relevant and helpful as possible.


Free Newsletter

Build a business
that can last forever.


Hi, I’m Scot — Join 100,000+ leaders getting
the blueprint to go from $0 to $100M.