How to build great functional teams

I read “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team” for the first time early this year when I started my ‘one book a month challenge’. I made a mental note to myself to revisit this book since it does such an excellent job of talking about how great teams work. Patrick Lencioni, the author, does this by carefully dissecting the reasons for the dysfunction we often see in teams. As a corollary, he tells us how to build great teams, and that’s what I’ll summarize here.

Book cover, from Amazon

Dysfunction in teams can occur to various degrees. You can see this in teams where members are individually good but the team as such never gets anything done. Where no one openly challenges others, where people speak behind each others backs, have constant fear of taking on big issues, show a lack of commitment towards common goals and second-guess their goals and assumptions all the time, always optimize for their own gains or promotions, instantly start pointing fingers once things go south, etc.

So how do you build a team that can work around such dysfunctions?

In the book, Patrick outlines a 5-step pyramid with each step showing the cause for a particular dysfunction and how to fix them. I’m “inverting” that pyramid here to talk about the corollary, essentially answering the question: How do you build well-performing functional teams?

I’ll first present the inverted pyramid here:

The “5 dysfunctions” pyramid, inverted

#1: Build trust
Trust is the platform on which the entire framework for efficient teamwork rests. The definition of ‘trust’ here is not the common-sense one, like assuming something about a person based on past history (“I trust John with my money”). Trust, in this context, is defined as:

[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

An environment of trust leads people to ask for help when needed, criticize without fear of reprisal, be vulnerable in front of others and admit mistakes freely, while having confidence that their shortcomings will be not used against them. It allows people to communicate fearlessly to offer feedback, and not resort to snide or snarky comments or political maneuvering. It leads to an environment where people appreciate and leverage each others skills for the good of the team.

#2: Embrace conflict
An environment of trust allows us to then embrace conflict. Conflict is an essential part of helping us grow as a team, and teams that engage in productive conflict know that their purpose is only to arrive at the best possible result in the shortest possible time. Since people in the team trust each other, conflict is not interpersonal, political, personality-based, and destructive, but issue-focused, ideological, and constructive.

Productive conflict often has some of the same elements as non-productive interpersonal conflict. Tension, passion, emotion, and frustration are natural concomitants of argument, but as long as the team realizes that the discussion is towards solving specific problems, they can come out of the conflict without lingering feelings of anger or hurt. In fact, the team would come out of such a rigorous discussion feeling rejuvenated and excited to take on more!

There is a tendency in many teams to avoid conflict at all costs by actively steering away from uncomfortable conversations. This is actually a sign of a lack of trust within the team, and this only leads to artificial harmony. Next time you see your team “taking something offline”, see whether the actual reason to do so was to avoid the associated discomfort of having that conversation openly. If so, avoid postponing the discussion and attack it head on right away!

#3: Provide clarity; achieve buy-in

Great teams make sure that there is absolute clarity in the decisions they make, and every member of the team fully buys in to the team’s major decisions — including those who might have had opposing viewpoints during the decision making process. Once a course is set, everyone rows in the same direction. People don’t secretly entertain doubts about their strategy, while outwardly expressing agreement.

The biggest pitfall in this regard is the desire to drive consensus as a means of achieving buy-in. In fact, consensus isn’t (and shouldn’t be) the goal. The goal should be to offer everyone the opportunity to be heard. Great teams understand that complete consensus is impossible to achieve in most settings. As the author says:

…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.

Even people who oppose a decision will buy-in, and perhaps even be enthusiastically in favor of it as long as they feel that their points were adequately heard and considered.

The other aspect is the decision making process itself. Great teams do not suffer from ‘analysis paralysis’ and let important decisions languish in uncertainty for long periods of time. Even in the face of incomplete data, a decision is better than no decision. This is especially true about executive teams where there are trickle-down effects of decision making (or lack thereof).

Move forward without hesitation, and provide clarity around direction and priorities.

#4: Hold one another accountable

In great teams, the expectations on each member of the team is clear (refer to ‘clarity’ above). Members of the team are willing, able, and comfortable calling their peers (or manager) on aspects that affect their team’s goals. People often have crucial conversations with their peers, and work around interpersonal discomfort by making it safe for the participants to enter the conversation. By holding one another accountable, people in the team forge stronger bonds with each other since they can see that the way they hold each other to high standards reflects upon the overall performance of the team (and helps achieve results).

Notice how one thing leads to the other here — an environment of trust makes constructive conflict possible, thereby providing the basis for achieving clarity in decisions and expectations, and makes it possible for accountability to exist!

#5: Drive towards organizational alignment

Even with all the above, people sometimes tend to care more about their own goals as opposed to the collective goals of the group (or org, or company). It’s natural to feel a sense of competition in a results-driven world, but individual goals should always take a backseat to the goals of the team. Individual egos should have no place in the company. Even effective teams can sometimes be dysfunctional and think more about their own objectives (“I need to make my product successful; I’ll do whatever it takes to make that happen”), while ignoring implications on the larger org or company.

Organizational alignment is extremely important to achieve true success. A focus on collective results motivates employees and teams to do their part while feeling connected to the business as a whole.

Closing thoughts

There is one important omission in the article above. I summarized the “what”, but left out the “how”. Just how do you build trust, embrace conflict, etc.? Patrick provides some advice on the “how”, and I have some of my own thoughts on it too. In the interest of keeping this article at a 5-minute read, I’ll keep the “how” for a subsequent blog post.

“The five dysfunctions” is one of the best books I’ve read so far, and I’m sure I’ll read it again before the year’s over. It’s a quick read, also because the author talks about all these issues in the form of a ‘leadership fable’, where a new CEO takes the reins of a (fictional) company and tries to fix a sinking ship. The fictional company in the book is a tech company based in the Bay Area, so the conversations, places, etc. seemed pretty real!

This book has given me some great vocabulary I can use in conversations with my team, and some useful advice on how to fix some of the commonly seen sources of dysfunction.

The hard part, of course, is being determined and persistent enough to follow what seems like common-sense advice!

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