Change Teams: Dysfunctions –What to Do When it’s Not Working?

We recognize the signs of a change team to working:

  • Members not showing up for meetings.
  • People showing up but not contributing to discussion,
  • Destructive conflict, disrespect, name-calling, and finger-pointing,
  • Overly polite meeting behavior but unproductive meetings, (few decisions or agreed actions)
  • Lots of hallway complaints, not brought up in meetings,
  • Members running to senior executives with complaints, or “early results,” and
  • Missed deliveries or other poor results

This list is not collectively exhaustive.

Much has been written about group dysfunction. Wilfred Bion from the Tavistock Institute in the United Kingdom identified a difference between a “work group”: (purpose, charter, individual roles and responsibilities, and expected outcomes) and what he called the “basic assumptions group” which were the shared underlying assumptions about the group’s culture and character.

Through his research, Bion identified three basic assumption group types:

  • The dependency group -which owed its existence to someone, who would protect the group and its members. This could lead to members communicating behind the scenes with a senior executive or the group leader and not interacting with or doing real work in the group.
  • The fight or flight group -which believed that the group was under attack. This assumption led to poor inter-group cooperation and the win-lose atmosphere was ultimately destructive to intra-group cohesion, causing members to seek safety outside the group. Leaders sometimes create external “enemies” in an attempt to engender group cohesions, learning too late that only half the group will fight; others are in
  • The pairing group – in which two group members assumed superiority of position or ideas. BIon noted that the pair bond might be accepted by the group in which case all work went through them. Or the pair might not be accepted by the group, in which case the pair sat at the sidelines making cynical commentary or otherwise disrupting the work of the group.

These dysfunctions were not mutually exclusive, (some groups have more than one).

Bion’s solution was to confront the dysfunctional assumption but to reestablish the primacy of the work group, i.e., get back to real work, revisit purpose, charter, roles, and responsibilities.

One of the more widely distributed books in this area is The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni. Lencioni is a former Bain Consultant who runs a group called The Table Group. He has written more than ten business books.

The Five Dysfunctions of a Team is criticized by academics because it is written as a fable and is not research-based. The book has been on several bestseller lists including the New York Times, Business Week, and the Wall Street Journal, and has sold more than a million copies.

Lencioni posits five team dysfunctions:

  • A lack of trust, which he describes as a lack of willingness to be vulnerable. This creates a lack of a safe environment to ask for help or admit weaknesses or leverage the strengths and complementary skills of the team.
    • Suggestion: Begin team formation by having each member share one strength and one weakness.
  • A fear of conflict, which creates “make nice” norms and an unwillingness to confront tough issues. The false agreement can create destructive two-faced behavior that undermines work toward results.
    • Suggestions: During formation set norms for confrontation
    • Set a process to argue for and against all ideas.
  • A lack of commitment, which shows up as absenteeism at meetings, revisiting decisions multiple times, and a resulting lack of clarity and results.
    • Suggestions: Be sure that everyone is heard on every decision
    • Acknowledge disagreement but ask for commitment once heard
  • A lack of accountability, which means team members holding each other accountable (not leader-driven accountability). This leads to missed deadlines and poor performance and resentment from those meeting commitments.
    • Suggestions: An accountability process agreed at formation
    • Norms for team members questioning failures, and early warnings of failure to request help.
  • Inattention to results – what Lencioni means here is the team result or the “collective work product” in the terms of Katzenbach and Smith. What often happens in dysfunctional teams is that individuals achieve their goals, but the team fails.
    • Suggestion: Lencioni suggests team rewards so that no individual can achieve success unless the team succeeds. This would work in the Katzenbach-Smith “real team,” but would be less effective in a single leader work group.
    • Providing more emphasis on team goals, whether through rewards of recognition and discussion seems to be what is required.

One criticism of Lencioni’s model is that he relies upon external processes like strength and weakness exchanges and written norms, rather than the structure of the work itself.

Also, many of his suggestions are for Tuckman’s Forming stage of development. While this is critically important, these issues are present in each stage of development, For example, conflict management is the work of the Tuckman Storming stage, but can arise at any time people feel their input is ignored.

The response to Wilfred Bion’s basic assumption of group dysfunctions is to identify them and confront them, but to return to the business of the work group. Similarly, the response to Lencioni’s five dysfunctions should be to get back to the work.

Lencioni’s organizational development processes (sharing strengths and weaknesses, rotating group facilitation responsibility, public expressions of commitment) are helpful. I have used many of them. But as Katzenbach and Smith said, “real teams are built by doing real work.” 


Alan Culler
Alan Culler
Alan Cay Culler is a writer of stories and songs, his fourth career (aspiring actor, speakers agent, change consultant, storyteller.) He retired after thirty-seven years as a leadership and change consultant. Alan was an executive coach, a leadership team facilitator, trainer, and project manager for innovation and improvement initiatives. Alan’s point of view: "Business is all about people, customers, staff, suppliers, and the community - pay disciplined attention to these people and rewards follow; ignore them and success will not last." Alan is “a seeker of wisdom from unusual places.” He is currently completing three books: Wisdom from Unusual Places, Is Consulting Wisdom an Oxymoron?, and Change Leader? Who me?. Alan earned a BA in Theatre from Centre College, an MBA from the London Business School, and a post-graduate certificate in Organization Development from Columbia University. Alan also builds cigar box guitars and wood sculptures, hikes, travels with his wife Billie, and gets as much grandchildren playtime as he can.

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  1. Thanks so much Brother Ali

    I appreciate your highlighting particular dysfunctions pertaining to the team’s agreed approach.
    It must include agreement on the amount of acceptable risk and the process for sharing risk related decisions.
    Also when we are using divergent thinking and when we are converging on the goal.

    If we accept that a real team is a performance unit with a small number, shared meaningful goal, collective work product, agreed working approach, perhaps including rotating leadership and mutual accountability, then any deviation from what is agreed is dysfunction, however understandable it might be outside the team context -e.g. courage is admirable, but breaking a shared risk norm is dysfunction in the team.

    Thanks again for your insightful contribution.

  2. The topic you discuss brother Alan shall remain a hot topic over time. It is not a time-dependent one.

    The structure of the group as you highlighted in your post is of prime importance.

    I imagine a scenario in which a team member id overly courageous. This may lead him to take high risks which may find opposition from other team or group members leading to conflict.

    Another example is a team member who is very creative. She keeps opening new possibilities and the team may derail from its main goal.

    It is how the team or group members solve these differences to stay on track that is the on-going challenge.

    Great coverage of teams and groups and what leads to their disintegration your post is.