Dysfunctional without knowing: 5 signs that your team might have a problem


In the last 10+ years, I have worked in and with many teams. And I was fortunate to experience working in many fantastic teams. Teams where people cared for each other, trusted each other and were committed to deliver the best results together. People, where conflicts and disagreements were beneficial and important to achieve better results.

However, I have also seen many teams, that seemed to be incredible but were partly (or entirely) dysfunctional: Often, those teams would say: “We are doing great!” or “Our team is the best!”.

Yet, when looking at the results, they were not all that great. Loads of quality issues, technical dept without a plan to pay it back, and the inability to make decisions and stick to them.

Often, there was a lot of harmony in the team. Too much. Occasionally, there were people afraid of being seen as wrong and therefore incapable of committing to decisions that were not their suggestion.

Many subtile things can happen in a team, reducing its ability to function and a high level of excellence. Typically, those things happen without the team knowing or, even worse, with the team believing it is doing great.

If you have read “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable” (Amazon) by Patrick Lencioni, you might recognise some of the following signals. However, it is easy to miss the dysfunctions if you don’t pay close attention. I believe that there are many reasons to miss them.

The five dysfunctions and why you might miss them

In short, the five dysfunctions are

  1. Absence of Trust
  2. Fear of Conflict
  3. Lack of Commitment
  4. Avoidance of Accountability
  5. Inattention to Results

These dysfunctions are based on each other: Without trust, people will not be able to have healthy conflicts as it is difficult to state an opposing opinion. Without having conflicts, decisions are more one person’s opinion that people don’t understand or trust and therefore cannot commit to. Without commitment, there can be no accountability and if nobody feels accountable, the result becomes unimportant for the individual.

Now, in my opinion, it is easy to ignore those dysfunctions because they sound so severe and critical. If you told somebody, their team is dysfunctional, how would they react?

Furthermore, dysfunctional suggests that the team is not functioning at all, whereas dysfunctional teams can very well be quite productive for some time and deliver results.

According to the Oxford Dictionary, dysfunctional means not operating normally or properly – but what do normal and proper actually mean?

Finally, dysfunctions are not black or white and don’t always equally apply for everyone in the whole team. Thus, it is easy to miss them. Even more so, when you don’t want to look for them.

The five signals to watch out for

Therefore, let’s try to take a look from another side: Let’s explore the signals that might be easy to observe while doing daily business. Be aware, that not all of those signals need to be present, and they can come with different intensity.

They don’t necessarily mean that there is an urgent underlying issue to be solved, but at least they mean that you should watch more closely to understand, if there is a problem:

1. People not having conflicts or disagreements

I am a harmonic person. I like harmony. When everybody likes each other and gets along well with each other, I am happy. Harmony is good. Isn’t it?

Yes and no. Nothing could describe this better than the quote from Patrick Lencioni:

Harmony itself is good, I suppose, if it comes as a result of working through issues constantly and cycling through conflict. But if it comes only as a result of people holding back their opinions and honest concerns, then it’s a bad thing.

You can have harmony and disagreements at the same time. Actually, the whole point of having more diversity on a team is to get in different perspectives, opinions, and experiences, and this is bound to create disagreements and conflicts in a healthy team.

But conflicts don’t need to be something negative. Quite the opposite. If everybody on the team believes in a common goal and if the team wants to achieve it as a team and not as a group of individuals, the following happens: Conflict leads to better results, understanding, and knowledge sharing which makes the team more successful eventually.

Watch out: If there are little to no disagreements in a team, the reason might not be full alignment, but team members holding back their true opinion.

2. Conflicts are taking on forever without the ability to decide

Your team has conflicts. Great! All good now? — No!

The purpose of a conflict is not the conflict itself, but the opportunity to learn from it and make a better decision. Not being able to come to a decision that the entire team can commit to can have many reasons. First, trust might be an issue:

  • Trust, that I am still valuable and valued even though my initial perspective/idea/decision was wrong.
  • Trust, that we can revisit decisions and change our course when new information supports that the initial decision was wrong.
  • Trust, that the entire team has the same goal and wants the best for the team.
  • Trust, that there are no hidden motives held by some individuals on the team.

Of course, it might also be that the team does not have a clear vision, nor clear values or guiding principles that it agrees on, so everybody tries to optimise for a different outcome. A classic source for misunderstanding and ongoing conflict.

Watch out: When it takes forever to come to a decision that the entire team can commit to, there might be underlying issues that can be resolved.

Watch out 2: The opposite is also true. When decisions are made by consent or by a decider, decisions are made quickly. However, they rarely get the buy-in of the team, which brings me to the next signal.

3. Decisions do not have consequences

Finally! A decision is made. Now we are good! Except: Nothing changes.

We agreed to a certain way of working, but most people continue as if the decision were never made. This usually happens when a decision is enforced without the members of a team understanding why and without them committing to it.

If team members cannot support a decision for whatever reason, they will likely ignore it and do what they think is best.

This is a vicious cycle which can lead to not having conflicts and not making decisions anymore, as they seem pointless in the first place.

Watch out: Decisions are made quickly but are often violated by one or multiple team members.

4. Not pointing out, when somebody acts against a decision

Hand in hand with ignoring decisions goes not pointing out when this happens. This typically comes from a fear of stirring up another conflict or for pointing out the wrong-doing of a person.

Mistakes can happen and team members might just forget about a certain decision. Thus, pointing out is not about blaming them, but about bringing it to their attention first and to help them to follow through with a decision.

Watch out: Decisions are violated, but nobody seems to care.

5. People not having a personal connection

Finally, one of the fundamental issues and frequently the root cause is lack of trust. And this is far more likely to happen when team members do not have a personal connection.

Now, I don’t need to be best friends with everybody on the team, but it is important to have a connection that goes beyond the pure task at hand.

  • What is going on in their lives?
  • What is motivating them?
  • How do they express themselves, and how do you notice if something does not sit well with them?
  • Why are they with the team and company?
  • What are their dreams and hopes?
  • What ways of providing feedback are they most comfortable with?

All this helps to understand the people on the team better and to create trusting relationships with each other. It makes it easier to have empathy for the other people and treat them as humans instead of as anonymous coworkers.

I have noticed many times, how skipping opportunities to build a connection and mutual trust happens because everybody wants to get work done. And this often makes it so much harder or even impossible to get any significant work done as a team.

Watch out: If it is all about work and not about people, trust issues might be the consequence that will spawn a number of problems when working together. Therefore, I consider this one of the most critical signals to watch out for.


The five signals to watch out for are:

  1. People not having conflicts or disagreements
  2. Conflicts are taking on forever without the ability to decide
  3. Decisions do not have consequences
  4. Not pointing out, when somebody acts against a decision
  5. People not having a personal connection

Looking for them and addressing the underlying issues will help your team to reach new levels of joy and excellence and will bring you closer together. If you would like some support on this topic, drop me a message.

Have you seen the signals? What other signals would you consider?


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