The Five Functions of a Team

If your team members all pull in the same direction for the sake of the team, then great things are possible. Obvious? Then why do so many teams contain individuals pulling in different directions, or not pulling at all? Howard Scott looks at what makes successful teams tick.

By Howard Scott

Hands up who found the performance of News International in front of the House of Commons Culture, Media & Sport Select Committee in July compulsive viewing? Ok, not everyone. I’m happy to confess to watching every minute of it - live. Brilliant, enthralling, fascinating stuff. I couldn’t get enough of it. And I deliberately refer to News International, rather than just the Murdochs, given the ranks of assembled NI staff who were there to both observe the gory spectacle and to be observed. The team of twitchy PR and corporate relations staffers. The stony-faced group of lawyers, all lined up behind the team of father and son (aka Chairman and Chief Executive). They contributed nothing to the proceedings of course, with the exception of Rupert Murdoch’s wife Wendi Deng, the only one to turn emotion into action. No, their job was done in the many hours of briefing, rehearsal and role play which had no doubt been played out beforehand.

And how intriguing that must have been, as two of world media’s most powerful figures were prepared for being called to account in a way neither would have ever previously experienced. You would reckon on the various teams doing a damn good job in preparing them for the ordeal. But the whole telephone hacking scandal, with its drip-drip of increasingly serious revelations, litigation actions seemingly by the day, the mounting corporate body count and that performance itself in front of the parliamentary inquisitors, suggests otherwise. It suggests that this business, like so many, suffers from a profoundly dysfunctional team culture. But it’s far from alone.

I’m yet to meet anyone who hasn’t been part of a team - business, social or sporting. We start being taught and practising the value of teamwork from a very early age. Most education supports and promotes it. It’s good, success building and we all like to extol the strengths and virtues of any team we lead. “The whole is greater than the sum of the parts”; “None of us is as smart as all of us”: “There’s no I in team”, blah, blah. And, as Malcolm Gladwell (the guy who reckons that to achieve ultimate success or world-class status in anything requires a minimum of 10,000 hours of practise) in his book Outliers noted: “No one – not rock stars, not professional athletes, not software billionaires, and not even geniuses – ever make it alone.”

Ok. So, given the emphasis and reliance on teamwork to operate and manage just about anything and everything, you’d think we’d all be pretty damn good at it by now. But the reality is very different.

Despite our upbringing, we are all still highly individualistic, full of the foibles and characteristics which make us innately more attuned to the needs of ourselves rather than a collective team. And when left to our own devices, our default position will invariably be one of self-interest.

But a dysfunctioning team is by no means the result of naked self ambition or the deliberate destructive actions of others. Sure, there are those in most organisations who understand and thrive on their disruptive, terrorist-like impact on their colleagues. But equally, over the years, I’ve worked with talented, well-meaning, conscientious, committed and, on the face of it, “team-players” whose effect on their colleagues has at best been constraining and at worst highly damaging. They didn’t mean it to be. It wasn’t a conscious thing.

So, what’s going on and what hope is there? After all, we strive to have great teamwork. We talk about it, preach it, encourage it and often facilitate it. We know that it is perhaps the single most important component in achieving great results and success. But most of the time, we are blind to what really creates top teaming. We fall short of what we are really capable of.

Which is what makes the work of American author Patrick Lencioni so enlightening and compelling. In his best-selling book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, he identifies the traits which define great teams and the reasons why so many fail, either completely or partially.

He compares a high performing team to that of rowers: “If all the people in an organisation are rowing in the same direction, you could dominate any industry, in any market, against any competition, at any time”. If, like me, you’ve observed or worked in organisations where people are not only rowing in different directions, but in entirely different boats, then Lencioni’s work has great resonance.

He identifies the five dysfunctions as:

1. Absence of trust

2. Fear of conflict

3. Lack of commitment

4. Avoidance of accountability

5. Inattention to results

Sounds all very simple and in theory it is. But in practise it is very, very difficult because most teams never achieve, and just as crucially, never sustain the level of understanding, commitment and determination which these functions require.

Lencioni turns these functions on their head, looking at the opposites and moving these toxic traits into positive characteristics. It is a better way to understand the DNA of high-performing, highly cohesive teams.

1. Achieve absolute trust in each other

Trust is the bedrock of any high performing team. Without it, true teamwork is all but impossible. And the issue is complicated by the frequent misuse of the word, used often to mean that people simply get on just fine with one another. That’s of no great use. What’s meant by absolute trust, in short, is the understanding that all team members have, that each one’s intentions are good and only for the benefit of the team as a whole. The single best measure of the level of trust within a team is the willingness of its most senior member to show some vulnerability. The CEO who says: “Guys, I’m just not sure about this. What do you think?” or “I reckon I got that wrong”, demonstrates a level of trust uncommon in many businesses. Achieving this vulnerability-based trust is, however, very difficult and counter to what most people learn as they progress through their careers. After all, they got where they are by being able, competitive, assertive, assured – in charge. Showing some vulnerability requires courage but brings great rewards.

2. Accept that conflict is productive

It follows from the first function that a lack of trust leads to limited constructive, passionate debate about the things which really matter, resulting in big issues being side-lined and poorer decision-making on the things you end up talking about. For sure, the conflict discussions happen, but in sub-groups in a back-channel way, after the meeting - in the corridor. Or in the car park as you’re going home. That’s where the things you really wanted to say in the meeting get said! So why are teams so poor at productive conflict? Firstly, the old adage that “people rarely speak the truth to power” is true. Unless absolute trust has been created, the CEO will invariably win the day on whatever he or she likes. Secondly, it’s hard and uncomfortable. Far easier to go with the flow than rock the boat. And finally, there’s the stark reality of the fact that we’re simply not very good at it. We are required to learn and hone so many skills and techniques if we want to be the best leaders that we can be, but all too often productive conflict in the workplace is seen as negative, almost taboo. We spend more time and effort actually avoiding it than confronting it. Productive conflict is at the heart of any great relationship or team.

3. Relentlessly pursue total commitment

Where does commitment actually come from? Lencioni says that commitment is a function of two things – clarity and buy-in. Team members leave meetings happy that no one is quietly harbouring doubts, anxious to have a back-channel conversation as soon as the coast is clear. But this should not be confused with having achieved consensus. Consensus is not representative of true commitment, but rather it creates a lack of commitment. Great teams, through trust, inclusion and productive conflict, find ways to achieve fantastic buy-in.

4. Understanding accountability for what it is, not a buzz-word

This is perhaps one of the toughest of the five functions. It requires team members to call each other to account if individual performance or behaviour is not consistent with the needs and objectives of the whole team. It’s tough because of the reticence to enter the “danger zone” of productive conflict. The fear that an otherwise good relationship may be damaged as a result. But great teams understand the dynamic of peer pressure (when handled well). They improve their relationships by accountability, demonstrating both respect and high expectations for each other’s performance.

5. Knowing which results really matter

For some, simply being part of a particular team is fulfilment enough. It provides the status and sense of personal achievement. This is dangerous, as it flies counter to the very notion of the team. Each member should have an unrelenting focus on the agreed team objectives as the primary measure of how it is performing. How often do you measure the success of your entire team, in ways other than turnover and profit?

So there we are. Five toxic, dysfunctional traits, reversed into five hugely powerful characteristics of high performing teams.

But where does all this take us? Can teams re-invent themselves in the pursuit of greatness without the need to disband and start again? Absolutely.

Rupert Murdoch was quoted several years ago as saying: “our reputation is more important than the last 100 million dollars”. In which case, his infamous first words to July’s Parliamentary Select Committee - “this is the most humble day of my life” - may just provide the perfect start to tackling the five functions.