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The Five Dysfunctions of a Team9 min read

One of the most popular management books of all time Is Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni. I have recommended this book to many first-time managers as I think it helps explore some important concepts.

That said, it is a book that has some significant issues.

I won’t waste a lot of time poking holes in the inanity of the dialog and fable. Instead, I want to focus on the dysfunctions themself.

The Five Dysfunctions are Absence of Trust, Fear of Conflict, Lack of Commitment, Avoidance of Accountability, and Inattention to results.

The First Dysfunction: Absence of Trust

Lencioni shows these dysfunctions as a pyramid, with trust being the foundation, implying that all other issues stem from the absence of trust. Lencioni also links trust directly to vulnerability.

The first dysfunction is an absence of trust among team members. Essentially, this stems from their unwillingness to be vulnerable within the group.

The problem is that trust is contextual. I am open and vulnerable with my wife, but I still wouldn’t trust her to perform heart surgery on me. While openness and vulnerability help form connections, they are limited regarding trust in context.

Trust between team members relates to the belief that they can do their jobs well, put the organization’s interests first, and take ownership of their actions.

Trust is more likely to be built due to productive conflict, commitment, and accountability than it is to be the source of it.

The Second Dysfunction: Fear of Conflict.

First, it is critical to point out that while Lencioni attributes the fear of conflict to a lack of trust, that is not the only potential cause. A fear of conflict could also come from many other factors, including cultural norms, past experiences (including violence or abuse), communication skills, power imbalance, or more.

Lencioni assumes that passionate debate is necessary, which may work great in some teams. I remember being at a company that engaged in loud, impassioned debate about ideas. I thought it was wonderful until I noticed that not everyone could participate equally in the forum. Many ideas were lost because the form of debate didn’t work for them.

This idea of productive conflict stems from an individualistic view where individuals will have strong opinions and should fight for them, and the best idea will win. It neglects that often the best debater wins. There are alternatives. Approaches that get lots of ideas out before people hear the opinions of others can facilitate more ideas coming out without direct conflict. In addition, pre-mortems can allow people to collaboratively challenge ideas rather than in direct conflict.

The underlying dysfunction that team Lencioni cares about is real. Some teams don’t collaborate well or use collective intelligence to solve problems. Not all ideas are heard. However, Lencioni’s approach biases the structure to support those who enjoy passionate debate, and his assumption that trust makes it all possible is naive. It comes from an individualistic worldview that may not suit more collectivist people.

The Third Dysfunction: Lack of Commitment

Like the other dysfunctions, Lencioni posits a causal relationship from the previous dysfunction. In this case, a fear of conflict is said to cause a lack of commitment.

On its face, there is some truth here. If team members cannot voice opinions, they are less likely to be bought in and commit to any path forward. In the popular management meme of disagree and commit, the disagreement (and that disagreement being heard) is an important part of commitment.

However, having your voice heard and understanding the decision is insufficient to garner commitment in all cases. If a decision goes against your core values, understanding the reasons and having voiced your opinion won’t be enough for you to change your values and commit to the course of action.

In addition, commitment is not required in all cases. Sometimes, all that is required is consent. In many ways, consent can be better. I am reminded of Zizek’s story of the difference between authoritarian and post-modern parents. The authoritarian parent demands that the child visit his grandmother. The post-modern one wants the child to choose, but there is a demand that the child choose correctly. Not only is the child required to visit his grandmother, but he must also want to go. This strikes me as similar to the demand that we all commit. There is value in consent or even submission over commitment as it maintains the inner freedom of disagreement. This inner freedom ensures that rather than blindly following a path, people keep their eyes open for any concerns that could arise if the decision isn’t working. There seems to be an idea that people won’t follow a plan unless fully committed, but an openness to try things seems much more critical than commitment.

If you feel you need to have everyone commit, it is worth asking what value commitment creates. In many cases, it is a false sense of certainty.

In cases where commitment is required (for example, when setting goals you will be accountable for), consensus should be considered a path to getting there. This is less about disagreeing and committing and more about coming to an understanding that everyone can agree with.

The Fourth Dysfunction: Avoidance of Accountability

Lecioni states that avoidance of accountability results from a lack of commitment. As with the previous dysfunctions, there is some truth here: if you are not committed to achieving a goal, it is likely that you will not hold yourself accountable for that goal.

There are also some challenges to this idea. Many people are committed to a goal and yet still make mistakes. Other times, results are not achieved due to forces outside of people’s control. When faced with these situations, some people will take accountability for their part and even for not overcoming bad luck, but some will not. Some people will blame others or bad luck and that seems less to do with how committed that person was and more to do with how they view themselves and their own comfort with complexity and failure.

Lencioni also seems to focus less on holding yourself accountable and more on holding others accountable. He calls out that without commitment to a clear action plan, people won’t hold others accountable for “actions and behaviors that seem counterproductive for the good of the team.”

While the line between commitment and holding yourself accountable is more reasonable, the line between commitment and holding others accountable is a bit more challenging. As in the conflict dysfunction, there are many reasons people may not feel comfortable holding peers accountable, such as power dynamics, cultural background, and past experiences. These issues have nothing to do with commitment directly.

In addition, holding someone accountable for “actions and behaviors that seem counterproductive for the good of the team” makes a judgment about whether the actions and the intentions behind them are actually counterproductive. At times like this, curiosity is more important than accountability. Teams are complex. The actions of individuals are open to a lot of interpretation. Having a reflexive culture where people can ask questions about actions taken and the intent is critical for understanding how to improve as a team. This is not so much about how we hold each other accountable but more about understanding and making sense of how individuals interpret actions and how we see those actions as contributing positively to the team.

Like the other dysfunctions, accountability is important, but it is not enough, and the path to accountability is not nearly as simple as Lencioni imagines.

The Fifth Dysfunction: Inattention to Results

Like the other dysfunctions, Lencioni claims that this stems directly from the previous dysfunction, the avoidance of accountability. And like all of the ones before, there is a connection, although it is overly simplistic.

There are many reasons that individuals may not be focused on the collective results of the team. One simple one can be incentives. If individual incentives are tied to individual results, that will often take precedence over group goals. Lencioni calls this out as important. However, it is more than just group rewards.

Lencioni mocks the idea that people are rewarded for effort, but there has to be a balance. Let’s imagine two teams. Team A tries an approach that works; they aren’t sure why, but it does, and they easily hit their quarter results. Team B tries and fails, and tries and fails, and tries and fails. By the end of the quarter, they have found something that works, learned how to make it through adversity, and have an approach that is now sustainable, but they have only gotten halfway to their results. Which team would you bet on in the next quarter? I would take Team B. The team that has learned more will likely sustain success and be resilient to change. Team B put in more effort than Team A to create a better process and system for future results. The risk of not rewarding effort is that you will reward luck.

Achieving results is important, but counter-intuitively focusing on the results may not be the best way to achieve them. If you focus on the process, and you focus on learning, and you focus on improvement, the results will come. Focusing on the results without any attention to how they may lead to results in the short term won’t create something sustainable.


There are reasons that The Five Dysfunctions of a Team is one of the most popular management books of all time. It is easy to read and creates a clear recipe for creating a great leadership team.

Sadly, it is also profoundly flawed. What Lencioni presents as a solid pyramid of capabilities building up from Trust to Unfiltered Conflict to Commitment to accountability to results is nothing more than a late-game Jenga tower. These items have connections, but they don’t form a stable scheme.

While this is presented as a model of leadership excellence, it is best seen as a framework. When looking at your team, thinking about Trust, Conflict, Commitment, Accountability, and Results is helpful. These are valid perspectives from which to consider whether a team is effective. However, it is not a recipe or an accurate depiction of how things work.

All teams are complex. There are no recipes. The best you can do is understand the tendencies and create the conditions where the outcomes you want are given more capacity, and those you don’t are restricted.

I will likely continue to suggest that first-time managers read this book. The concepts are important, but I will encourage them to be critical and to see what it is: a simple fable.

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