Why do teams fail? Unpacking 5 dysfunctions

By Kathi Clarke

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Teams fail for one of two reasons. Either because their leaders don’t delegate for fear of what “could” happen if they let go, or if team members don’t or won’t step up and take responsibility so that owners can pass the baton on secure in the knowledge that all will be well.

In this article we will explore the five “dysfunctions” of teams, as outlined in Patrick Lencioni’s The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable, which prevent owners from delegating well and team members from stepping up to the plate.

DYSFUNCTION 1. Lack of trust

This can break teams, particularly if team members aren’t comfortable being vulnerable with each other about their weaknesses, mistakes, fears and behaviours. How can you fix your team if this type of basic trust is missing? As the team leader, you need to treat every team member as a person first, and a player on the team second. Remember you hire individuals, not resources, people not assets, and in the day-to-day working world navigating this fine line with elegance is essential.

In your own business, it is not good business to “stay aloof”. Provide an opportunity – say in a weekly meeting – to increase personal sharing. Create a safe space where what they say is always “respected”. Lead by example, admitting mistakes quickly and without getting defensive when you have not done your job – model how to handle things when they go wrong. Your team will learn based on what you do, not what you say.

DYSFUNCTION 2. Fear of conflict

By squashing dialogue around difficult stuff and ensuring that there is no room for disagreement, you may very well prevent your team from finding the best answers to a problem. If your team only says what they think the boss wants to hear, there are some practical fixes:

  • Intentionally seek out buried conflict in team meetings, and encourage open debate by, for example, saying: “The argument we’re having though uncomfortable is exactly what we’ve been talking about to get the best answer – it’s good – keep going.”
  • Invest in psychometric profiles of team members (no, it is not too expensive). When you understand their dispositions, how they differ and how to manage them best, you have an awesome tool to improve team interaction.
  • Agree to the rules before starting, and make sure you have identified any distractions that are not material to the meeting agenda and how you will park them to one side to be dealt with at another time.

DYSFUNCTION 3. Failure to implement

Your team always say “yes” during the meeting and everyone leaves upbeat, but none of the discussed changes are implemented. If this is your team headache, here are a few things you can try to improve matters:

  • Agree on the rules of engagement beforehand, including the agenda, time limit, what outcome you are working towards and why this matters to them. Model good listening yourself (it is an active skill that needs practice) and recognise those who do it right.
  • Record all ideas without censure and make sure everyone contributes. Not only is it important to show that everyone is being heard, but by inviting debate and tabling buying into a course of action, you show that all suggestions are being considered and being given due attention.
  • Bring everyone on to the same page by giving them the information they need to make good decisions. If you let teams “see what’s going on inside your head” (within reason) and share the figures, they usually give their undivided support. It’s the not knowing that causes many team players to freeze, hesitate and underwhelm.

DYSFUNCTION 4. You have to “police” behaviour

If this is your team challenge, you need to make a few things clear:

  • At the end of all meetings, to ensure everyone’s commitment, spell out what behaviour needs to be evidenced and write down who has agreed to what, and by when. Not only will this galvanise team members around the decisions taken and make performance management easier, but it will also mean that team members can “police” each other.
  • Asking the least enthusiastic team member to report back to the group is a great way to cement the decisions taken and to silence the opposition.
  • Tackle problems head on, don’t leave them; unlike a good red wine they won’t get better with time.

DYSFUNCTION 5. Personal objectives put before team objective

Team members place their departments, own career aspirations, ego-driven status and own success ahead of the collective results that define the team’s success. How do you get them to play together better? There are a few things you can do:

  • Encourage regular feedback around collective goals so that these stay “top of mind”.
  • Conduct an after-the-event review – what happened, what worked – and ensure that consequences and rewards are linked not only to individual performance, but also to team success. This takes some creativity, so don’t be a lazy owner.
  • Celebrating the little wins along the way encourages teams to actively build trust, engage in conflict, commit to decisions, and hold one another accountable. And when they do this well and consistently, you as the owner enjoy the best chance of them setting aside their individual needs and agendas, to focus on what is best for the team and looking after the business.

Addressing these five dysfunctions will mean investing some considerable time in your team, but when your team is firing on all cylinders you will see the results clearly. And that’s when scaling up, increasing leverage so that you can enjoy time back for yourself and your family and growing an asset that in time you can sell become a reality.

Kathi Clarke is an industrial psychologist, international award winning and certified ActionCOACH business coach and a business growth expert.

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