5 dysfunctions of a team: Absence of Trust

“We have a more experienced and talented executive team than any of our competitors. We have more cash than they do. We have better core technology. And we have a more powerful board of directors. Yet in spite of all that, we are behind two of our competitors in terms of both revenue and customer growth. Can anyone here tell me why that is?”

With these words, Kathryn Petersen, the newly appointed CEO of DecisionTech, a once successful startup from Silicon Valley, started the first off-site meeting with her executive team. Even though the room was filled with the most talented managers from all over the country, the question was followed only by silence.

How often can we ask the same question to our teams? We don’t have to be a CEO. We can be a technical manager working in a small team with the smartest people in the world; or a leader in a non-profit organization with the most engaged people of all. Yet, looking at our teams, we can feel that something is wrong; as if there were a barrier which holds us from achieving our goals.

By the way, DecisionTech is not a real company, and Kathryn Petersen is not a real CEO. She is the main protagonist in the popular book written by Patrick Lencioni, a consultant with years of experience working with executive teams of all sorts. Even though Kathryn is not real, the question she poses is 100% valid, and surprisingly, the answer is quite simple.

The biggest problems are not resources and individual people’s skills or traits — the major issues are a few unique attributes of teams known as the Dysfunctions of a Team.

5 dysfunctions of a team
5 dysfunctions of a team

In his book, Lencioni lists five dysfunctions which he thinks are the most essential when talking about teams. He organizes them in the form of the pyramid shown below, suggesting that each dysfunction has its roots in a previous dysfunction. There is nothing revealing in these dysfunctions; therefore some people may find them obvious. Even the author says that he doesn’t want to teach anything new; he merely wants to nudge us in order to remind about some basic but critical rules.

My idea is to review these dysfunctions one by one. In the first article, I will focus on the first dysfunction, and subsequent articles will explain others. Each of the paragraphs will be divided into two sections. In the first, I would like to focus on the symptoms of the dysfunction; in the second I will suggest varies possible actions which can be taken to overcome it.

Let’s begin!


Imagine that you are a technical manager in an IT company.

Your team is not performing very well, so you ask your friend Susan, who is a coach, to help you in finding out what is going on. She visits your office and spends two weeks with you and your team, and then comes to your desk with some observations.

— What is wrong? — you ask.

— First of all, I can see no trust. — Susan replies.

— How come?! Look at David; he is a top performer — I trust him 100%. I trust the other guys too. I think they are trying to do their best!

— I can see that, but this is not the trust that I am referring to. Your team lacks vulnerability-based trust.

You look surprised, so Susan starts to explain what she meant. She noticed that David is a top performer as well, but also saw another thing which you hadn’t. Even though the team consists of three other specialists, not a single one of them raised any issue during last week’s meeting. It was an important meeting, during which the team was supposed to make some important calls, so the lack of discussion was quite peculiar. But, there is a reason.

“David is so ridiculously good that the others are too afraid to be perceived as weak and therefore don’t speak up“, Susan continues. — They withheld their opinions to avoid accidentally acting like fools. There is no place to be vulnerable.

Then, she continues to describe what she observed.

In the last ten days, David has worked overtime on at least four days. You may think, that it is because he is so passionate about his job. But, in fact, it is because he is stuck with one task and conceals it because he is afraid that asking for help will somehow deteriorate your perfect opinion about his skills. Frankly, he is becoming more and more exhausted, because he is a quite typical introvert and is unable to open up in front of the team. Unfortunately, the rest of the team thinks of him as a typical smartass and attribute to him bad intentions.

— Why do they believe such a thing? He is a great guy! — you respond, surprised.

— He has an excellent result-oriented personality type. — she replies. — So once in a while he asks other guys whether they have finished their work. For him, it sounds natural, but this is not evident to the other team members. Tim relates David’s questions to the painful pressure he felt at his previous job with a massive international corporation. As a result, Tim becomes defensive and David is unable to express his concerns and backs down. It is a vicious cycle. Defensiveness is one of the symptoms of the absence of trust.

— How can I make this right?


Let’s leave our little team story for a while and list a few actions which any leader can take to overcome the absence of trust:

  • admit that you have made a mistake and focus on the fact that being vulnerable is OK;
  • set common goals with your team and achieve them together to experience a high level of satisfaction from being part of and working with the team;
  • schedule a meeting at which each member of the team can say something about themselves (his previous job, background, a funny story from childhood);
  • ask team members to do a personality test (e.g. Myers-Briggs) and share the results with other team members to make personal traits such as being an introvert or extrovert explicit;
  • engage in frequent 1-on-1 feedback sessions with team members where people can share their opinions in a more private setup;
  • organize a team feedback session where each team member will have a short, 10-minute 1-on-1, meeting with their peers;
  • arrange a meeting where each team member will draw his personal map (here you can find an example) and describe it to the other team members;
  • schedule a session in which team members can share the values which are the most important to them (CHAMPFROGS is a good example of such an exercise);
  • arrange a group SWOT analysis session where team members write down the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats which may affect their team;
  • draw a competence matrix where people mark the areas they feel confident in, and in which areas they would like to learn more — set up a culture of knowledge sharing;
  • encourage people to make presentations about new things that they have learned recently even if they don’t feel proficient yet.

Of course, these are not the only action you can take. The only limit is your creativity. Only you know your team members or your peers, so only you can find the best solution for a given point in time. What is important is that success and trust are not built overnight, it requires hours, days and weeks of hard work, and yet it is still very fragile. It is like a precious plant, which needs to be watered regularly or will dry up.

But why does all this matter? Why do you even need to care whether trust exists or not?

Trust is the foundation on which the team is built. If there is no trust, no team will fully exploit its potential. People will not exchange opinions freely enough, and the combined knowledge of the team will not develop so quickly. More importantly, without vulnerability-based trust, the team will struggle to fight the next, even more exciting, dysfunction called “The Fear of Conflict.”

But this is a topic for another whole new article.

To be continued!


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2 Comment

  1. Trust is a thing a lot of employees are alien to. It is a worthwhile investment to build trust in the workplace. It will enrich the company in the long run.

    1. Nancy, thank you for your comment 🙂 Trust needs time and evidence 🙂 This is hard to achieve, but for sure it is worth it 🙂

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