Why is genuine teamwork elusive?

If you could get all the people in an organization rowing in the same direction, you could dominate any market, against any competition. But the truth is that genuine teamwork remains elusive in most organizations, and team leaders and members fall unknowingly to the 5 dysfunction pitfalls.

Patrick Lencioni told a leadership tale in his book about how Kathryn, the new CEO of a once-promising but now-failing company, managed to bring the unconsciously dysfunctional executive team into a cohesive and effective team, to illustrate an actionable model which is applicable to any team. I thought it’s worth sharing, if you haven’t got time to read the original.

1. Absence of Trust

The word trust is used so often and in so many ways that it has lost its impact. You often hear people say: “I trust my coworkers so I don’t question how they do their job”, “I trust my boss so I followed his order without question”, “I trust him implicitly and I’m ready to go to bat for him any time” …… but these stand in contrast to the type of trust an effective team needs.

More than anything I’ve told by others, I see a trust problem here in the lack of debate that exists during meetings and other interactions among this team.

Great team do not hold back with one another. They admit their mistakes, their weakness, and their concerns without fear. Every effective team has a substantial level of debate.

The only way to do that is to overcome our need for invulnerability.Achieving vulnerability-based trust is difficult because it requires us to turn off our instincts which we learned over the years to be competitive with our peers and protective of our reputations.

Teams that lack trust waste inordinate amounts of time and energy managing their behaviors and interactions within the group. As a result, morale is usually quite low, and unwanted turnover is high.

Team assessment: Do team members call out one another’s deficiencies or unproductive behaviors? Do they challenge one another about their plans and approaches?

2. Fear of Conflict

A dysfunctional team may have tension, but almost no constructive conflict. If we don’t trust one another, then we aren’t going to engage in open, ideological conflict, and we’ll just continue to preserve a sense of artificial harmony.

If we can’t learn to engage in passionate, unfiltered debate about what we need to do to succeed, we are through.

Team meetings and movies have lots in common. What makes a movie interesting? Conflict. If there’s nothing worth debating, then we won’t have a meeting.

Team Assessment: During team meetings, are the most important — and difficult — issues put on the table to be resolved?

3. Lack of commitment

The evidence of this one is ambiguity.

When people don’t unload their opinion and feel like they’ve been listened to (due to fear of conflict), they won’t really get on board.

This is not consensus. Consensus is horrible. Because it’s rare everyone really agrees on something naturally and quickly, consensus becomes an attempt to please everyone, which usually turns into displeasing everyone equally. Most reasonable people just need to be heard, and to know their input has been understood, considered and responded to.

You can call it disagree and commit.

You may have worked with managers who like to describe any sensitive decision as “Everyone is happy with”. Are they the effective and confident managers, or the opposite?

4. Avoidance of Accountability

The evidence is low standard.

It’s not easy to hold someone accountable. Some people are hard to hold accountable because they are so helpful. Others because they get defensive. Others because they are intimidating.

People decide to tolerate peers on issues which matter, to avoid the interpersonal discomfort.

While managers may not have as much of problem to hold direct reports accountable, it’s harder with peers, because “We are supposed to be equals, and who am I to stick my nose into their business?” More importantly, when there was no buy-in and commitment in the first place, it seems pointless, people would just say “I never agreed to that anyway”.

(Some managers may say “I just consider each team member has his own job, I let them be accountable for their own area, and I help them on one-on-one basis when I could.”) Okay, imagine a basketball coach at half-time. He calls each player to his office one-on-one about the first half, without letting any of them knowing what everyone else was talking about. That’s not a team. It’s a collection of individuals.

Once the team achieves clarity and buy-in, then we have to hold each other accountable for what we sign up to do, for high standards of performance and behavior.

Push with respect, and under the assumption that the other person is probably doing the right thing. But push anyway. And never hold back.

5. Inattention to results

The evidence is ego and politics.

There’s a reason that sports are so prevalent when it comes to teamwork, the score at the end of the game that determines if you won or lost, there’s little room for interpretation or ego-driven success.

The key is to define goals for the team in a simply measurable way which leaves no room for interpretation when it comes to success. Otherwise it only creates the opportunity for individual ego to sneak in. And that’s where politics prevail.

Many of us have had experience with organizations which emphasize effort over result. People take pride in fighting fires than preventing fire in the first place. The incentive to improve efficiency and quality is lost, the game to preserve the illusion of long working hours is on. The next things gone are the competitive edge and team morale.

The politics around here are astounding, and they are a result of everyone being far too ambiguous about what we are trying to accomplish, and that makes it easy to focus on individual success.

Kathryn’s observation shocked everyone in the team, they thought she went too far this time to say they are political. One of them had to ask “What do you mean by politics?”

Politics is when people choose their words and actions based on how they want others to react rather than based on what they really think.

Then it started to sink in.

Team Assessment: Does the failure to achieve team goals affect morale significantly? Or does everyone just think it’s not his fault?

It’s a journey.

During the next two weeks I’m going to be pretty intolerant of behavior that demonstrates an absence of trust, or focus on individual ego. I will be encouraging conflict, driving for clear commitments, and expecting all of you to hold each other accountable. I’ll be calling out bad behavior when I see it, and I’d like to see you doing the same. We don’t have time to waste.

After weeks of quiet observation followed by a team building phase, Kathryn laid out the ground rules.

On the way to shedding their dysfunctions, plenty of groups slide backward. The journey is about having the discipline and persistence to keep doing what we started to do.

The signs of progress in the eyes of a new member who just joined Kathryn’s renewed team:

Joseph was new to the staff meeting. He witnessed the most passionate debates he had ever heard, which ended with crystal-clear agreements and no sense of lingering bitterness. People called each other on carpet once or twice in ways that made Joseph uncomfortable, but in each case they brought the discussions around to results. At the end of the session, he decided he had joined one of the most unusual and intense executive teams he had ever seen, and couldn’t wait to become an active part of it.

It’s difficult to build a cohesive team, but not complicated. Keep it simple.

As much information as it contains, teamwork ultimately comes down to practicing a small set of principles (not a sophisticated theory) over a long period of time with uncommon levels of discipline and persistence.

Therefore the model to achieve genuine teamwork by overcoming the 5 dysfunction pitfalls is worth refreshing periodically for the leaders and anyone interested in the real power of teamwork.

1. Absence of vulnerability-based trust

Building vulnerability-based trust cannot be achieved over night, it requires:

  • shared experience over time
  • multiple instances of following through and credibility
  • an in-depth understanding of the unique attributes of the team members

Suggested team exercises: Share personal histories; identify the single most important contribution each member makes to the team, as well as one area to improve or eliminate for the team; personality profile; and 360-Degree feedback — the key of which is to divorce it entirely from compensation and formal performance eval.

The leaders need to demonstrate genuine vulnerability first, and create an environment that does not punish admissions of weakness or failure.

2. Fear of conflict

The only purpose of productive conflict is to produce the best solution in the shortest period of time. The great teams 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’s important to distinguish productive ideological conflict from destructive fighting and interpersonal politics. However they can have many of the same external qualities — passion, emotion, and frustration — so much so an outside observer might easily mistake it for unproductive discord.

  1. Ironically, teams that avoid ideological conflict in order to avoid hurting team members’ feelings, end up encouraging dangerous tension.
  2. It’s also ironic that so many people avoid conflict in the name of efficiency, because healthy conflict is actually a time saver. Teams 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” but only to have it raised again at the next meeting.

Teams that fear conflict ignore controversial topics that are critical to the team success, fail to tap into all the opinions and perspective of team members, and waste time and energy with posturing and interpersonal risk management.

Teams that engage in conflict put critical topics on the table for discussion, solve real problems quickly with minimal politics, and have lively and interesting meetings.

Suggestions: First acknowledge that conflict is productive, and that many teams have a tendency to avoid it. Assign a team member to be “miner of conflict” — who extracts buried disagreements and sheds the light of day on them — during a meeting. Interrupt and remind one another in real time to not retreat from healthy debate when they start to feel uncomfortable.

It is key that leaders demonstrate restraint when team members engage in conflict, and allow resolution to occur naturally. The desire to protect members from harm is the most difficult challenge for leaders, which leads to premature interruption of disagreements and prevents members from developing conflict management skills, similar to mistakes of overprotecting parents. Lead by personally modeling appropriate conflict behavior.

3. Lack of commitment

Commitment is a function of 2 things: clarity and buy-in. Great teams move forward with complete buy-in including members who voted against the decision, and they leave meetings confident that no one is quietly harboring doubts whether to support the actions agreed on.

The 2 greatest causes of lack of commitment are the desire for consensus and the need for certainty:

  1. Seeking consensus is dangerous. Great teams ensure that everyone’s ideas are genuinely considered, which creates a willingness to rally around the ultimate decision by the group.
  2. A decision is better than no decision. Great teams unite behind decisions even when there is little assurance about whether the decision is correct. Often the teams have all the information they need to make a decision, but it needs to be extracted out of people’s hearts and minds through unfiltered debate.

Like a vortex, small disparities between executives high up in an organization become major discrepancies by the time they reach employees below.


At the end of a meeting, the team spends a few minutes to review key decisions made during the meeting and what needs to be communicated outside of the meeting about those decisions. (Often members learn that they are not all on the same page and need more clarification before putting them into action.)

Use of clear deadline for when decisions will be made — ambiguity is the worst enemy of commitment, and timing is one of the most critical factors that must be made clear. Committing to deadlines for intermediate milestones is just as important as final deadlines, because it ensures the misalignment among team members is identified and addressed before the costs are too great.

Brief discussion on contingency and worst-case scenario allows overcoming their fears.

The leader must be comfortable with the prospect of making a decision that turns out to be wrong, and must be constantly pushing the group for closure around issues.

4. Avoidance of accountability

Accountability refers specifically to the willingness of team members to call their peers on performance or behaviors that might hurt the team.

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

The biggest motivation for people to improve their performance is peer pressure, the fear of letting down respected teammates.

Teams that avoid accountability encourage mediocrity, miss deadlines and key deliverables, create resentment among team members who have different standards of performance, and place an undue burden on the team leader as the sole source of discipline.


Publication of team goals, who needs to deliver what, and how everyone must behave in order to succeed.

Regular progress review.

By shifting rewards away from individual performance to team achievement, a team is unlikely to stand by quietly and fail when a peer is not pulling his weight.

The leaders need to create a culture of accountability on the team by encouraging and allowing the team to serve as the first and primary accountability mechanism. The leader must be willing to serve as the ultimate arbiter of discipline when the team itself fails, but this should be a rare occurrence.

5. Inattention to results

This dysfunction is when a team, in stead of focusing on achieving goals and results of the team, focus on other things — most commonly team status or individual status.

Many teams simply do not live and breathe in order to achieve meaningful objectives, but rather merely to exist or survive. Unfortunately for these groups, no amount of trust, conflict, commitment, or accountability can compensate for a lack of desire to win.

Teams that are not focused on results, rarely defeat competitors, lose achievement-oriented employees, encourage members to focus on their own career and individual goals, and are easily distracted.

Suggestions: Make results clear, and reward only those behaviors and actions that contribute to those results.

The leader must set the tone for a focus on results. If the team members sense that the leader values anything other than results, they will take that as permission to do the same.

A note about Kathryn’s style

Kathryn is the new CEO in Lencioni’s book who turned a dysfunctional executive team into a cohesive one. A few things worth noting for her style besides the methods she demonstrated in the story:

  • Under heated situations, she spoke in a confident and relaxed way, far more in control than the other party had expected.
  • She was careful to hold back her opinions in order to develop the skills of her team.
  • When it became clear that the team had fully digested the magnitude of the situation and had nothing more to add, she went ahead and broke the silence.
  • She understood that a strong team spends considerable time together, and that by doing so, they actually save time by eliminating confusion and minimizing redundant effort and communication. Most management teams balk at spending this much time together, preferring to do “real work” instead.
  • She decided it was time to trim down the number of her direct reports, when her staff had grown to barely manageable eight.

It wasn’t that she couldn’t handle the weekly one-on-ones, but it was increasingly difficult to have fluid and substantive discussions during staff meetings with nine people sitting around the table, even with the new collective attitude of the members of the team.

Teams succeed by acknowledging the imperfections of their humanity and overcoming their natural tendencies that make genuine teamwork elusive.

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