Project Management

5 Dysfunctions of a Team and the PM Disasters They Caused

Published by in Project Management

The 5 dysfunctions of a team have derailed corporations. Here’s how to prevent them from undermining your business.

Patrick Lencioni’s popular leadership book “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team” illustrates just how destructive it can be when teams fail to act like cohesive units.

It doesn’t matter how educated your staff is, how much they’re paid, or what kind of project management software you’re using. If your team doesn’t trust each other and communicate well, the results will be disastrous.

This isn’t just a theory. There are plenty of examples of real, successful companies imploding and failing spectacularly because they ignored Lencioni’s warning.

What are the 5 dysfunctions of a team and how do you avoid them?

The five dysfunctions of a team, according to Lencioni, are:

  • Absence of trust
  • Fear of conflict
  • Lack of commitment
  • Avoidance of accountability
  • Inattention to results

Strong, successful teams trust each other enough to have open, honest communication. This leads to commitment to the plan (because all voices have been heard and valued) and accountability, because when a team is committed to a plan, it’s obvious when someone isn’t pulling their weight. All of these layers build to a selfless, team-first attitude.

But there are many examples of large, successful corporations that lost sight of the collective goal and failed spectacularly as a result.

Let’s take a look at the five dysfunctions, and what happens when they are allowed to fester.

1. Absence of Trust

 THE SITUATION:  American Apparel was founded in 1989 by Canadian businessman Dov Charney. As the company rose to prominence, an alarming trend of sexual misconduct by Charney began to emerge.

The company also faced criticism for terminating an employee upon his return from chemotherapy treatment, hiring and firing employees based on their perceived level of attractiveness, and incidents of racist and homophobic verbal abuse in the workplace.

As an employee working in those conditions, what level of trust would you have for those around you?

 THE FALLOUT:  In December 2014, Charney was fired as CEO amid the mounting allegations against him and hundreds of millions of dollars in company losses since 2009. American Apparel filed for bankruptcy in 2015 and 2016 while fighting numerous lawsuits.

In January 2017, Canada’s Gildan Activewear purchased the American Apparel brand for $88 million in a bankruptcy auction. The embattled company then laid off about 2,400 employees and started shutting down and selling off all of its physical locations, ending its reign as America’s largest garment maker. As of spring 2019, American Apparel still hasn’t reopened a brick and mortar location.

 THE TAKEAWAY:  A CEO establishes the culture for an entire company. A company that can’t trust its CEO can’t trust anything, and a company without trust is a company without open communication. As a leader, you are responsible for establishing a culture of mutual trust and open communication. Your success depends on it.

2. Fear of Conflict

 THE SITUATION:  In his 2008 book “Outliers”, Malcolm Gladwell devotes a chapter to Korean Air and a pervasive cockpit culture that prevented co-pilots from challenging their superior lead pilots. In addition to the stark Power Distance Index (in which the pilot is beyond question), the Korean language also has six different levels of conversational familiarity and a receiver orientation, placing the onus on the listener to decipher what is being communicated.

The problem wasn’t unique to Asia. Gladwell also found that a crew of Colombian pilots aboard Avianca Flight 52 in 1990, when interacting with American Air Traffic controllers at JFK International, showed too much deference to their perceived superiors, as far as neglecting to notify the tower that their plane was running out of fuel while still waiting in a holding pattern.

 THE FALLOUT:  Avianca Flight 52 crashed after running out of fuel during an attempted landing at JFK. Between 1970 and 1999 Korean Air lost 16 aircraft, resulting in more than 700 deaths due to crashes. In 1999 Korean Air took drastic measures to address the communication woes, and hasn’t had a single fatal accident since then.

 THE TAKEAWAY:  For any team to function properly, open and unfettered lines of communication are absolutely imperative. In the case of an airline, radical candor is a matter of life and death on a large scale. Good leaders foster an environment where no one is above question, and staff at all levels can feel comfortable challenging each other in a healthy way.

3. Lack of Commitment

 THE SITUATION:  The Target Corporation is one of the largest retailers in America, so an expansion across the border into Canada seemed like an airtight strategy for success. In 2011 Target Canada acquired more than 100 former Zellers locations and opened them as Target stores in 2013.

It was Target’s first attempt at international expansion, and it showed. Poorly planned locations, unstocked shelves, and lackluster products left Canadian shoppers feeling lukewarm toward the big, red bullseye.

 THE FALLOUT:  Target lost billions on the failed expansion and closed all 133 of its stores in the Great White North after only two years in business, resulting in the Canadian subsidiary filing for bankruptcy in early 2015.

 THE TAKEAWAY:  As the old saying goes, if something’s not worth doing right, it’s not worth doing. Target Canada lacked commitment to its northern expansion, a misstep that cost the company $2 billion. Following through on great ideas is almost as important as having great ideas in the first place.

4. Avoidance of Accountability

 THE SITUATION:  Houston-based Enron became one of the biggest energy companies in the world after helping to deregulate utilities in the 1990s.

As Enron grew, its leaders strayed from the path of financial transparency and resorted to falsely producing favorable statements to impress shareholders and investors. The leadership team fostered a culture of deceptive accounting and obfuscatory reporting to hide billions in debt due to business failures.

In addition to internal subterfuge, Enron also pressured outside accounting firm Arthur Andersen to ignore the glaring transgressions in its auditing.

 THE FALLOUT:  In late November 2001, with about $23 billion (roughly the GDP of Iceland) in liabilities from debt and guaranteed loans, Enron filed for the largest bankruptcy in American history at the time. The company’s shares, which crested at more than $90 in mid-2000, had plummeted to less than 70 cents/share. Arthur Andersen went out of business after its involvement in the scandal, leaving 85,000 employees without jobs.

 THE TAKEAWAY:  Without clear, realistic organizational goals, a corporate environment becomes ripe for pockets of power and excessive bureaucracy. At Enron, a gaping lack of accountability allowed a rogue team of leaders to draw the corporation into one of the most spectacular business collapses in American history and led to the passage of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act. Good leaders do things the right way at all times so that success isn’t hollow and fleeting.

5. Inattention to Results

 THE SITUATION:  Lululemon built a strong brand in the early 2000s, embracing the burgeoning yoga movement to become the de facto official apparel provider of yoga practitioners.

But in practice, Lululemon didn’t exercise yoga’s values of inner peace, coexistence, and enlightenment. This discord was on display as Lululemon founder Chip Wilson blamed issues with his company’s threadbare yoga pants on the body shape of the women wearing them.

Lululemon also ran afoul of its target customer base when Wilson suggested that birth control pills and divorces started a chain reaction that ultimately led to the success of his company.

 THE FALLOUT:  Wilson stepped down as chairman in 2013 after public outcry. He is still a Lululemon landlord, though he has been selling millions of shares of his stock in the company. In 2016, he criticized the company for losing its way and the lack of women on its management team.

 THE TAKEAWAY:  By neglecting to pay attention to its core demographic, Lululemon faced one PR disaster after another during the past decade. Rather than focusing on results and delivering quality products to its customers, the company has become an explosive organization plagued by controversy. Always remember your company’s original vision, and make sure that you’re serving your customers’ needs no matter how successful you become.

Go from dysfunctional to high-functioning

Check out these other articles on the five dysfunctions of a team to go from dysfunctional to high functioning:

How do you avoid the five dysfunctions? What are some examples that I didn’t include here? Let me know in the comments, or tweet me @AndrewJosConrad!

Looking for Project Management software? Check out Capterra's list of the best Project Management software solutions.

About the Author

Andrew Conrad

Andrew Conrad

Senior Content Writer @ Capterra, sharing insights about retail. Published in PSFK, Modern Retail, and the Baltimore Sun. Austin transplant. I love spending time outside with my dog or floating on the Colorado River in my inflatable kayak.


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