I never really heard anybody, in my (too) many years of studying, say: “Michiel, I honestly love group assignments. I can’t get enough of being dropped into groups with complete strangers to spend my time meeting with them - often unnecessarily - and compromising my own views for the sake of consensus.” Then again, I must admit that finding a student openly admitting being excited about anything course-related is often a novelty in and of itself. Still, for various reasons, we can find group work discomforting. That’s natural and totally fine, but working well in teams is imperative in our current-day knowledge economy (I know, it’s a bit cliche, but it’s true!).

With this blog, I strive to increase your understanding of important factors in teamwork. I think once you are consciously aware of some fundamental dynamics - and the fact that you can influence said dynamics - will change your perspective on the topic. “Life is a party, but you have to put up your own decorations.” In other words, every group assignment from here on out can be an opportunity to grow your leadership competencies and insights if you are willing to apply and experiment with some knowledge I present you with in this blog.

How this blog works

For starters, this blog is more or less a shortened echo of Patrick Lencioni’s Five Dysfunctions of a Team. The book was recommended to me by a family member who has extensive experience in managing teams at the highest level of the firm. When I noticed his enthusiasm while describing the book, I knew I had to read it and share it. This blog is about a short, fictitious story of four FEB students working on a group assignment: Eric, Ann, Catherine, and you. This story will serve as an example to present the five dysfunctions of teamwork.

Eric is a fact-minded, somewhat introverted guy who enjoys doing practical things. Ann is sharp, curious, and conscientious person with a strong sense of responsibility. Catherine is spontaneous, energetic and has pronounced social and communicative skills. The fourth student is yourself. This begs the obvious question: “who are you?” What are your strong points and weaknesses? It’s a simple question with a complex answer. Just know that honest introspection will always make you a better leader.

The story  

It’s Monday 12:00. The professor is presenting the introduction to the course assignment for the course business psychology as students are listening attentively, or so it seems... After all, it’s a monday, which implies that energy levels are not exactly skyrocketing. Our project group decides to come together for an initial meeting. Catherine did not feel shy in providing her personal opinion about the course and the professor, which evoked a distressed demeanor in Ann as the ‘rambling’ progressed. Ann went straight to business: “So how should we divide the work?” For Ann, every second spent on something other than the tangible assignment, was a second too much, or so it appeared.

During most of the meeting, Eric appeared to be ‘the fly on the wall’ to some extent. Right off the bat, he suggested being the note taker for the meetings and was barely visible behind is enormous laptop. Eric comes across as a warm person, perhaps because he seems to agree with almost anyone on anything. Catherine is Eric’s polar opposite. She had numerous creative ideas and communicated them convincingly. Although Ann appreciated Catherine’s efforts, she was notably bothered by the fact that any sense of direction in the group project was quickly crippled by yet another new idea from Catherine. This caused tensions between them and Ann would quickly get defensive in discussions.

Catherine’s once optimistic attitude has turned sour. The quality and quantity of work that she provided was also less-than-stellar. It had simple spelling and grammar errors. Eric did what was literally asked of him, much to the frustration of Catherine and Ann. The final paper was riddled with inconsistencies that had to be fixed in a rush before the deadline. Ann was tired of being the ‘responsible one’ and having to correct the simple mistakes of others. At this point, she wanted to get it over with and turn it in.

Applying Patrick Lencioni’s five frustrations of teamwork

The first and most important dysfunction in a team is a lack of trust. Without mutual trust, teamwork is hardly conceivable. Group members must all feel comfortable exposing their vulnerabilities. No team member should hesitate to ask for help or provide constructive feedback. Lencioni emphasizes that it sounds straightforward, but should not be underestimated. So if you were the leader of the example work group, what could you do? Luckily for us readers, we were provided with a vivid picture of the personalities of each of the group members. In real life, you’d have to explore this for yourself of course. One can never trust someone or something of which he or she has no knowledge. Instead of rushing to the assignment first, take your time to get to know your group members and make sure that they get to know you too. One of the most efficient ways to create trust in a team is by exposing your own vulnerabilities first. A true leader leaves his ego at the door! For some people, trust is a slower process than for others. E.g., Ann’s defensiveness is an indicator that she is not fully ready to put all her vulnerabilities on the line. This can ‘bleed’ into further team dysfunctions. If you consider yourself a leader, you must find a way to deal with that. 

The second dysfunction is aversion to conflict. Conflict is of the utmost importance in teams, functional conflict that is. Healthy conflict is only possible under the assumption of mutual trust. Without trust, conflicts can be quick to turn into more malicious, interpersonal affairs with underlying political motives. So long as team members trust that the other members have nothing but honest intentions, there can hardly ever be enough conflict. Eric’s behaviour is a great example of conflict aversion. He tends to isolate himself from most of the conflicts between Catherine and Ann. Eric might have some very interesting points to make and we missed out on that by not having him included in the discussion. Furthermore, avoiding a problem now simply means having to deal with it at a later - perhaps busier - point in time. As a leader, don’t be afraid to address even the most controversial of issues and make sure that everyone is involved in the conversation. If you know Eric has introverted tendencies, help or stimulate him to take part in the discussion. At the same time, it’s important to stay neutral as a leader during conflicts. Help him into the conversation but don’t become overprotective. This will undermine the group’s trust.

The third dysfunction of teamwork is commitment. This part is all about actual decision-making within the team. Many teams are ruined by the tyranny of consensus. The fact of the matter is that consensus is not a prerequisite for commitment to decisions. Under the assumption of trust and fair, functional conflict, you’d be surprised by the proportion of people who are willing to commit to something they disagree with. Just make sure that the decision your team makes is clearly understood by all members and makes sense with respect to the prior conflict(s). Hesitation in your decision can have a detrimental impact on the outcomes. E.g., the inconsistent final product of the example group is a result of unclear decision-making. Despite their superficial agreements, it was apparently still not fully clear what was expected of everyone in the group. This caused them to have to rush near the deadline.

The last two dysfunctions are avoidance of accountability and inattention to results. It’s clear that the group’s final work left much to be desired in terms of quality. This is where we end up when we avoid rigor conflict and make unclear decisions. Catherine’s motivation has completely eroded. It’s exhausting for her to come up with out-of-the-box ideas only to be met with fierce spring back from Ann with little to no support from Eric. Frankly, Ann’s controlling behaviour has wiped away any sense of accountability or responsibility in Catherine and Eric. This has, in turn, exhausted Ann, whom is now the only source of discipline in the team. These things are distracting from the final results of the report. So what could a leader do? After the decision-making stage, it’s important to discuss the expectations and goals for the individuals precisely and clearly. What is more, responsibility is decentralized in effective teams. Ann took over most of the responsibility but doing so, she enabled other group members to outsource it to her. As a leader, you should emphasize and encourage that responsibility is a common good in your team. Simultaneously, you should remain strict but fair. In other words, being either too proactive or too passive are both going to lead to dysfunctions in your team.

To conclude

The examples and suggestions are only a watered-down version of what real management entails. At the end of the day, all the roads lead to Rome. It might come across as broad and subjective; e.g., what does “don’t be too proactive or too passive” even really mean? Besides, there is little substantiation in academic literature to be found for the notion of five dysfunctions of teamwork. Patrick Lencioni seems like a nice enough guy, but should we really be taking his word for it in the absence of objective empirical evidence? My opinion is that you will encounter numerous ‘trendy’ concepts from slick consultants in your career, some being rebranded versions of old theories and some being legit. The question isn’t whether you should desert your academic knowledge in favour of these ‘newer’ concepts, but to what extent you are able to apply your academic competencies to evaluate and use them effectively. I think Lencioni's framework has legitimacy but maybe you don't. That's fine because remember Lencioni's second rule; conflict is healthy!