The 5 Dysfunctions of a Team: Understanding and Overcoming Team Pitfalls

Dim Blinov
Agile Pies
Published in
7 min readFeb 10


In 2002, Patrick Lencioni published a book that describes the common pitfalls that teams face. Lencioni has coached and observed thousands of CEOs and Fortune 500 management teams, and has identified five levels of dysfunction that teams must overcome in order to succeed. These five levels build upon one another, and without addressing the lower levels, the upper ones will not be attainable.

Below you may find description of levels by Lencioni with an addition of actions provided by me based on my personal professional experience.

Level 1: Absence of Trust

The first level of dysfunction is the absence of trust. Teams that lack trust are unwilling to be vulnerable, admit mistakes, and ask for help within the group. This creates a dynamic where members are not open with one another and are unable to build the foundation of trust necessary for effective teamwork.

To identify this level

look for signs such as late problem identification and lame retrospectives where everyone says “all is good.” Another sign is the third question in daily stand-ups, which asks team members to share any roadblocks they may be facing. If team members are not open about their challenges, it may indicate a lack of trust.

  1. Problem identified late: “Why didn’t you tell us that there are problems earlier?”
  2. 3rd question of Daily Standups "What empedes you and all the team from achieving the Sprint Goal?" is left unaddressed.
  3. Lame Retros: “Love everybody. All is good!”

As a Leader do this

One of the biggest obstacles to building a high-performing team is the absence of trust. To address this, leaders should implement several strategies, such as:

  1. Personal Mind Maps: This can help team members get to know each other better, while still respecting personal boundaries.
  2. MBTI Profiling: This is a tool used to assess personality types, which can help team members understand each other’s strengths and weaknesses.
  3. Competence Maps: These maps outline the skills and knowledge of each team member, providing a clear picture of the team’s strengths and areas for improvement.
  4. Team Charters/Canvases: These documents should outline the values, principles, dos, and don’ts of the team.
  5. Lead by Example: Leaders must demonstrate trustworthiness by asking for help from team members, admitting their own weaknesses and limitations, and being the first to own up to a mistake.
  6. Ground Rules for Communication: Leaders must establish clear guidelines for communication, ensuring that all team members feel comfortable sharing their thoughts and ideas.
  7. Safe Environment: Leaders should create a safe and inclusive environment where team members feel comfortable sharing their thoughts and ideas.
  8. Face-to-Face Communication: Regular face-to-face communication, visits to different sites, and keeping video conferencing turned on can all help to build trust.
  9. Simple Team Building Activities: Engaging in fun, low-stakes activities can help to build relationships and foster trust among team members.

Level 2: Fear of Conflict

The second level of dysfunction is fear of conflict. Teams that lack trust cannot engage in debates and discussions on issues, which can lead to stagnation.

Conflict is a natural part of teamwork and can be either healthy or destructive.

  • Healthy conflict is positive and allows for the testing of ideas, leading to stronger commitment to decisions.
  • On the other hand, persistent personal attacks are destructive and need to be addressed.

To identify this level

observe if debates are absent from meetings and if there is visible harmony but hidden grievances. A simple test is to start a meeting by announcing a terrible idea and see the team’s reaction. If everyone agrees, it may indicate a fear of conflict.

  1. Just observe.
  2. Visible harmony, hidden grievances. Someone explodes sometimes, but “Why didn’t you tell us earlier that you were frustrated?”
  3. Try to spot debates, or their absence when people agree with each other by default. Boring meetings, everybody agrees.
  4. You here opinions like “We have a lot of useless meetings!” And one of the possible reasons they are useless — nothing happens on them. They are empty, unproductive, unengaging.
  5. A litmus test — start a meeting by announcing a terrible idea :) and see the reaction.

As a Leader do this

Another common challenge faced by teams is fear of conflict. Leaders can address this by:

  1. Acknowledging the Need for Conflict: Leaders must explain that healthy conflict is necessary for testing ideas and improving performance.
  2. Feedback and Criticism Rules: Teams should establish clear guidelines for giving feedback and formulating criticism.
  3. Conflict Theory: Leaders should educate team members about the theory of conflict and the need to separate the person from the action.
  4. Lead by Example: Leaders should demonstrate how to give feedback and handle criticism in a constructive way.
  5. Facilitation Techniques: Leaders should use proven facilitation techniques, such as pros/cons analysis, to help team members share differing perspectives.
  6. Devil’s Advocate: Leaders can appoint a devil’s advocate for each meeting, to ensure that all perspectives are heard.

Level 3: Lack of Commitment

The third level of dysfunction is lack of commitment. Without passionate and vivid debates, team members may not fully buy into decisions and may only pretend agreement during meetings. This can lead to a lack of commitment to the team’s goals and a focus on individual goals.

To identify this level

look for team members who follow the given project plan rather than their own self-made and validated plan. Additionally, if team members engage in conflict, but not for the sake of the team, it may indicate a lack of commitment.

  1. People work formally, just follow “the given project plan,” rather than their own self-made, elaborated and validated plan.
  2. People engage in conflict, but not for the sake of the team, but for the sake of their goals.

As a Leader do this

When team members lack commitment, it’s essential to take the following steps to bring them back on track:

  1. Clarify goals, results, and outcomes. Explain the reasoning behind them to help team members understand their significance.
  2. Set clear deadlines and provide justification for them. Deadlines help keep team members focused and motivated.
  3. Establish clear roles, including a definition of done, Kanban rules, and a delegation board. This helps to ensure that everyone knows what is expected of them and reduces confusion.
  4. Review key decisions at the end of each meeting. This allows team members to reflect on their progress and make any necessary changes.
  5. Ask about concerns and fears. Once these have been identified, develop contingency plans for handling them.
  6. Implement confidence voting. This allows team members to vote on the confidence they have in achieving specific goals.

Level 4: Avoidance of Accountability

The fourth level of dysfunction is avoidance of accountability. With a lack of commitment, team members may hesitate to hold one another accountable for actions that go against the good of the team. This can lead to a lack of accountability and a focus on individual tasks rather than team goals.

To identify this level

look for team members who take only their own tasks for the iteration and do not show concern for the rest of the team. Additionally, if team members frequently make excuses such as “it’s not my job” or “I don’t get paid enough,” it may indicate a lack of accountability.

  1. People take their own tasks for the iteration, and do them.
  2. “Everything else is not my concern! I don’t care. Not my job! Not in my job description. I don’t get paid that much.”
  3. No signs of a good behavior which sounds like this discussions: “I think we didn’t take this into account…”

As a Leader do this

When team members are avoiding accountability, it’s important to take the following steps to get them back on track:

  1. Encourage team members to provide impersonal feedback. This helps to reduce tension and creates a more positive work environment.
  2. Ask “WE” questions, such as “How are we doing?” and “Are we on track?” This helps to focus on the team’s progress and identify areas for improvement.
  3. Encourage others to challenge the team’s plan and prospective inputs. Ask questions like “Are there any risks we haven’t paid attention to?” and “Is everything good?” This helps to identify potential problems and find solutions.
  4. Discuss team performance indicators, such as velocity and "Committed vs Completed". This helps to keep team members focused on their goals and make any necessary changes.

Level 5: Inattention to Team Results

The final level of dysfunction is inattention to team results. If team members are not held accountable, they may put their individual goals ahead of the project goals, leading to a focus on personal success, status, career development, recognition, and ego before team success.

As a Leader do this

When team members are paying little attention to the results of their work, it’s important to take the following steps to get them back on track:

  1. Find a common ground, such as shared moving motivators and competence maps. This helps to build team morale and foster a sense of shared purpose.
  2. Set and clarify team goals. Explain the importance of each goal and why it is significant.
  3. Decompose goals into tangible results. This makes it easier for team members to understand what is expected of them and how their work contributes to the team’s success.
  4. Set team rewards for overall team results. This helps to keep team members motivated and focused on achieving their goals.
  5. Avoid showing wrong behavior. This helps to maintain a positive work environment and keep team morale high.

In conclusion

Patrick Lencioni’s book “The 5 Dysfunctions of a Team” highlights the common pitfalls that teams face and the five levels of dysfunction that teams must overcome in order to succeed. These levels build upon each other, starting with absence of trust, then fear of conflict, lack of commitment, avoidance of accountability, and finally inattention to results.

Teams can identify these dysfunctions through observations such as late problem identification, lame retrospectives, absence of debates, and unproductive meetings.

Leaders can address these dysfunctions by implementing various strategies such as building trust, acknowledging the need for conflict, educating team members on conflict theory, and using facilitation techniques.

By overcoming these dysfunctions, teams can improve their performance and achieve their goals.