We will comment today on why teams “go wrong”, with the most common mistakes in leadership. I will mention the 5 dysfunctions of a team, a very widespread and super interesting concept to know.

In this best-selling book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, Patrick Lencioni talks about the five reasons why a team can’t seem to work together.

This book has been a bestseller for years and, and since it’s not based on research or data, being purely fictional (although it’s very, very used by leaders around the world), we will also review some of the existing literature on the most common mistakes in leadership.

Thus, I will try to build up from the book with my own experiences to comment on the subject: why do teams fail and what are the most common mistakes in leadership?

What are the 5 dysfunctions of a team?

Looking at the book, as you can imagine, Patrick reveals that there are 5 dysfunctions of a team: the absence of trust, fear of conflict, lack of commitment, avoidance of Team Accountability and inattention to team objectives.

They all contribute to make your job as a leader more difficult. They almost happen as a sequence. In the beginning, mainly speaking of the forming stage, if a proper team work environment is not created, the individual members tend to perform better, but at the individual level.

The lack of attention to the team’s goals happens when, in this eagerness to prove themselves, the members put their needs before the team’s. Which in a way makes sense, because these people know how they operate individually, but they still don’t have a strong sense of team.

Then we start to notice people avoiding accountability. If each one does what he or she wants and there is no cohesion, the members will no longer be concerned with the work of the other. It’s not enough that the leader hold people accountable, this is one of the most common mistakes in leadership – a high-performing team also sees accountability taking place between peers. This is crucial to success.

Patrick Lencioni says that holding peers accountable motivates a team member more than the fear of punishment from authority, in this case, the leader.

When going through the third cause of problems, lack of commitment, the team has difficulties in complying with the decisions and an ambiguous environment is created. The lack of direction and commitment can make members, especially those who thrive on performance and competition, to feel resentful.

Every team is subject to these deviations.

People who work only alone, with no vision of the team’s goals and that do not demand results, begin not committing to the decisions made. They may not have been involved, or they just don’t see much of a reason to participate anymore. Here, team meetings begin to look more like formalities and bureaucracies, since they do not impact their work.

Then, as the fourth problem in a team’s series of dysfunctions, we notice the rise of the fear of conflict. Even if people say “I trust others”, especially when they have more work experience, the team as a whole can fall into this hole of avoiding conflict.

This problem reflects people’s inability to confront others and raise tensions, fostering growth and working on problems. Remember that I said that the biggest problem in the storming stage was to not face the naked truth of the situation?

It may even be that people start to notice what’s wrong, but if they don’t see anyone raising the issue, they may think that they are the only ones noticing it or, worse, the only ones to care. 

In an environment in which members don’t talk openly about what bothers them, the work will be inefficient because many times people think “there’s no point in doing that” – and then the hole gets deeper and deeper, until it reaches a point of just pointing fingers and blaming others for the overall inefficiency of the team. One of the most common mistakes in leadership is to just dismiss this situation.

The lack of trust is mentioned as the worst of the team’s dysfunctions, because the team members are more concerned with defending and protecting themselves than working. Here the constant pressure starts to build up as well.

Now let’s explore a little more of the literature on team development problems and mistakes in leadership.

Let’s draw the big picture here:

The study of team performance in the management environment is nothing new and has many concepts, so much so that I will have to dedicate a whole section to it. The oldest research that I will use is from 1986.

Linda Glassop conducted a survey on team performance. She’s an Australian PhD in systems theory and master studies in teams. Her survey comments on how teams perform better than the individuals alone, becoming sources of sustainable competitive advantage for companies.

Novartis Professor of leadership and management at the Harvard Business School, Amy C. Edmondson, comments on her book on how the team, through peer interaction, increases the performance of the organization as a whole through the exchange of knowledge and practices.

An incredible survey by Deloitte from 2020 states that as companies become more and more competitive and digital transformation becomes more popular, they also tend to become interconnected, agile and more team-centric. This is a term I have never heard before: team-centric.

For them, this digital transformation has already reached several industries, mainly that of product development, IT, communication and sales, but the problem still remains: the superior layer of leadership, the C-level.

Of course, in this Effective Leadership course, we are not talking about the executive leadership of the organization. But it’s interesting to see this development: if there’s a movement surging of demanding from the “highest” leadership, imagine what this means for the middle managers. We have to be very fast. The leadership bodies of an organization need to act as teams as well.

We saw in the previous lesson about the interdependence of members is important, now let’s focus on the part of why teams fail, cool? 

What makes up the team performance as a whole.

Reviewing an article on Inc, by Bruce Eckfeldt, who is an architect and scholar in the field of digital strategy and design. Bruce was an Inc 5000 honoree five years in a row. We can extend these points as part of the most common mistakes in leadership. He mentions five points:

Lack of purpose: teams without a clear definition of purpose are typically not aligned for success. This way, people will pull to different sides.

Unclear roles: The only thing worse than not knowing what others are doing is not knowing what you are doing.

Fixed Mindset: People with a fixed mindset believe that gifts and talents are inherited from birth and not that they can be improved or developed over time. Even teams of excellent technical people end up getting stuck in a project because they believe that what they already know is enough to solve a situation, when it’s not.

Poor decision-making: teams that make bad decisions fall into two modes. First, they think too much and spend too much time in the process. Second, they don’t invest time in advance and start implementing the solution, banging their heads against a wall until they give up or succeed, but they may get hurt.

Lack of resources: Team morale and commitments quickly erode when members lack the right tools and equipment and authority to do their jobs.

Big lies that are told to teams.

In a very revealing interview for Harvard Business Review with J. Richard Hackman, author and expert on team dynamics and professor of organizational psychology at Harvard. He comments on two of his books and a survey with 120 high-performance teams executives.

For Hackman, people overvalue teamwork, believing that they are democratic and efficient.

In his research, he found that virtually all teams had clear rules and limits; but when he asked the members about specifics, there was agreement in only 10% of the results.

Often it is the leader who is responsible for drawing the boundaries. And here is one of the most common mistakes in leadership, especially for first-timers: they are either too permissive, or they end up acting on behalf of who they are closest to. Even in my course My First Leadership Role, I mention how to be close to your team, without getting carried away by friendships.

Richard also mentions that another very common fallacy is that bigger teams are better than smaller teams because they have more resources. In one of his researches, he identified that, as the number of people increases, the number of connections grows exponentially. And the leader’s job is all about managing these relationships. He mentions that his rule of thumb is to not get to double digits; for this, the team should never exceed 6 people.

He goes on and mentions that one of the things that happens, contrary to the popular belief, is that members who become more comfortable with each other also become complacent and, as a result, performance drops. In fact, having new members is bad for teams in general. To mention one of his findings, 73% of mistakes in flights occur on the first day of a team. The problem is that teams don’t get to know each other, instead of settling down.

Why do change efforts fail?

Finally, I will mention the research work by the company True Points, a consultancy specialized in leadership, founded by Mike Beer, a Harvard professor and author of 12 books, on culture change and leadership.

In a survey, they identified that 75% of 1500 leaders were dissatisfied with the training they received. They found that the variable that had the highest correlation with the ability that leadership training has in causing effective change was psychological security. Remember the lesson we talked about it?

Thus, a major role for you as a leader, in addition to leading these changes, is to ensure that your team is united and cohesive. Only then your organization will grow.

Cool? Now that we’ve been through these researches, let’s understand how you can avoid falling into these traps. This was a quick overview of the literature. Okay, let’s go to practice.

How to avoid falling into these dysfunctions of a team.

We saw a lot of theoretical content in this lesson, but so far relatively little action. Let’s start with it. 

Your main role in a new team (remembering that teams recycle whenever new members join) is to encourage transparency and teach how to confront people in a healthy way.

For this reason, you as a leader should set an example: admitting your mistakes, thanking when someone corrects you and, mainly, fostering debate between the members. You can do this by saying things like “Guys, we have an important point here in our meeting which is X and I don’t have the answer yet. I would love to come up with a solution. As I have no answer and no idea of ​​the best way, I am open to suggestions and to work the alternatives”.

In this way, a very large door for participation opens up. You can even create small decision moments to train yourself and train your team in the decision-making process, creating situations to discuss together. This will help your team to create confidence in expressing themselves.

To reinforce it: it’s crucial that you set an example as a role to be followed. Whether you like it or not, you are in a position of authority and power now and people will see in you what’s allowed and what is not, thus avoid falling into one of these team dysfunctions.

Getting to know your members is an important step.

A practice that I learned very early on is to create moments of getting to know your team, also known as Team Building. In these moments, you and your team will bond with each other, to get to know each other a little more, to build trust, in short. Team buildings can have different agendas and objectives, but it is always, as the name says, for the benefit of the team as a whole. 

Just to give a quick example: I used to ask questions and to create a group activity in my team weekly meetings. What do you value the most in general, what irritates you the most, what do you value the most in a team, these kinds of things. They tend to get more and more personal and introspective as the team is more mature.

Seriously, this type of activity is really powerful when it comes to building trust, rapport and empathy within the team. Trust is one of the dysfunctions of a team. Or the lack of.

In no time, you may discover that a colleague had a very strict upbringing, with rules and that is why they like to always follow guidelines. Then, another colleague has regretted not attending art school and therefore they always want to work with creativity. Or that a person loves freedom so much and that is why they don’t assess a project’s risks, because they see it as a restriction. Maybe you can even discover something about yourself.

I have a lot of material about it from the international organization I’ve worked for. If you want me to post this content, leave it in the comments! If there are a lot of people asking, then I translate and publish it. How about that?

Your focus now is to make people open up and get to know each other, because the Storming stage will come, there is no way to avoid it, and it is necessary to have empathy to be able to get through without trauma.

Stimulating healthy conflicts between the team.

There will be several moments and situations that will make one person roll their eyes and disagree. One of the most common mistakes in leadership is letting those resentments build up and snowball into a larger situation. 

Take advantage of your one-on-one meetings (if you are not having 1:1 meetings, start now) to sense these tensions. With the team a little more confident, you should encourage people to raise tensions in a healthy way. Create these moments of debate and confrontation in a controlled manner.

The worst thing that can exist for your team in the beginning is the creation of Drama Triangles. I’m going to talk about it soon, because it’s a super, super important topic. Essentially, a drama triangle occurs when a person sees her or himself as being wronged or affected by another person’s action (or lack of action). This directly contributes to the dysfunctions of a team.

Instead of directly giving feedback or asking what happened to the wrong-doer, the offended person goes to a third party to create gossip, or to ask to intervene or to simply speak behind their back. This only makes the situation worse in the medium term – and even in the short term.

When people avoid conflict, resentment and remorse are created and work starts to get more difficult to get done. Partially because people don’t make the lives of people they dislike easier. For many this manifests as unconscious workplace decisions.

The leader will have to put time and energy to solve an aggravated situation in hours of work, when it could have been solved long ago with a few minutes of conversation. So, encourage people to speak directly to those they feel is negatively affecting their work.

The role of the leader in solving the 5 dysfunctions of a team.

There are several dysfunctions of a team, but few reasons why a team works well. Your responsibility as a team leader is to teach them to do the right thing. You cannot aim to control all moments and all interactions – and it’s great that you give room to those informal and “out of your control” moments to happen. Because that way you also leverage the good times that may bear some fruit to your team.

So, focus a lot at this start on dictating the desired rules and rhythms. Drinking a lot from the source of the lesson on the stages of team formation, you can speed up the Forming stage and go through the Storming stage in a smooth and healthy way, building an even stronger team up front.

Here is what happens: We all have bad times in life, this is normal; the question is whether we leave them with many, few or no scars at all. Don’t let your team get too hurt by your negligence. I already had moments when we were all crying in a room, on a Saturday night, I think for three hours. It taught us a lot, for sure, but it’s not something that I wish everyone to go through to learn what I’ve learned. There are better ways.

Cool? As we say in my hometown: better than that, just twice that.

The article’s treasure:

In the end of each article, I will write a final recap for you to memorize the main takeaways.

This is what I presented in this article:

We saw here about the dysfunctions of a team that end up translating as the most common mistakes in leadership. There are five according to the book: the absence of trust, fear of conflict, lack of commitment, avoidance of Team Accountability and inattention to team objectives.

We have also covered several researches on the subject, which address several other points of view that are super interesting. One, which caught my attention, demystifies a theory that teams become complacent over time. In fact, the problem was that they never got off to a good start in the first place.

I finished the lesson talking about how you can speed up this process and go through the initial steps in your team development, in order to avoid these dysfunctions: get to know your team, be an example and encourage healthy confrontation.

In the next lesson, The Functions of Management, I’ll cover the main theory within management for leaders. Notice: the main one, not the only one.

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Always look both ways. See you in the future.