From dysfunction to vitality – How to build teams that thrive

Leadership Blog  |  5 minute read

Wayne Alexander

Written by Wayne Alexander

From dysfunction to vitality – How to build teams that thrive

Clients often come to us to help ‘fix’ dysfunctional teams. Many have considered the well-known and highly regarded ‘Five Dysfunctions of a Team’ theorised by Patrick Lencioni. It is a powerful model and one that can unearth important insights and empower useful approaches to improve the functioning of a team. Arranged like Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, these dysfunctions build from a foundation of absence of trust, through fear of conflict, lack of commitment, and avoidance of accountability culminating with inattention to results.

But danger lies in focusing on fixing each of these within the boundaries of the team and within the current context. Doing so can create a well-oiled highly-efficient machine – but is it the machine the organisation really needs? We like to inject new vitality into teams – the energy, creativeness and flexibility to not only work well as a team, but to deliver their life’s best work in pursuit of a shared organisational vision.


The Optimisation Trap

Powerful though it is, challenging each of the Five Dysfunctions within the capsule of the team only goes so far in creating breakthrough performance.  Removing the roadblocks that prevent teams from performing can lead to a pursuit of efficiency that blinds individuals and organisations to other vital aspects of success. Creativity and innovation can suffer as the team focuses on getting things done. Meeting existing targets and business as usual objectives prevents consideration of breakthrough goals. A focus on ‘doing’ makes it harder to step outside of the existing context and examine what the team needs to be to really deliver for the organisation.

Doing more of the same, more efficiently will not deliver breakthrough results. Worse, optimising performance without questioning the wider challenges of the organisation can make it harder to make the changes needed. High performance teams could be running faster in the wrong direction!


Islands of performance

To use a basic analogy – working out to create one beautiful bicep is unlikely to improve the performance of your body overall. Whilst exercising one arm certainly can establish positive behaviours, its value is limited unless applied more widely. The same is true for teams. Improving the internal dynamics of one team can have benefits, but teams seldom work in isolation. Exploring the interactions between teams and applying Lencioni’s principles across the boundaries between teams is just as important.

Teams can quickly establish their own cultures which can either be supportive or detrimental to the overall organisational culture. Internally aligned teams might be high-performance against their own metrics but could be damaging to the overall organisational goals. They can quickly become cliques and foster commitment to team-goals to the detriment of organisational goals. The borders between team and organisation can become impermeable with little trust flowing across them. 

Islands of high performance – when unaligned to overall commitments, or resistant to changes in those commitments – can become anchors to old approaches and prevent the organisation moving forward as a whole. Leaders should also be wary of the words they use. The word “performance” can trigger stress and a focus on ‘doing’ that closes down creativity and engagement.


High performance, or high vitality?

Instead, it is important to instil a commitment to overall vitality. The word itself opens up new thoughts and possibility. Most definitions of vitality include concepts of both energy and strength. They also encompass the idea of enduring energy; a capacity to self-renew. Creating vitality in teams is the same; the strength of a team comes from its internal energy and capacity to refresh. It is about ways of being rather than ways of doing, and it requires alignment with all other teams and the organisation as a whole.  

As with the Lencioni model, it all starts with trust: vitality thrives on trust within and between teams. Teams with vitality offer the space for individuals to be their best selves, inspired work hard in pursuit of shared commitments. Vitality gathers momentum as teams not only trust their own members but extend trust to other teams to deliver in their specialist areas. Crucially, they act in ways that engender trust in what they do. Honest, declared commitments, transparency, integrity and authenticity all help to establish this virtuous energy cycle that spreads across the organisation.

Addressing each of the five disfunctions not within the enclosed parameters of the team, but as open commitments across the organisation creates the energy to sustain performance. It also ensures that performance is perfectly directed to the future state that the organisation as a whole wants to achieve.

At a top-10 pharmaceutical corporation, I worked with a 300 person function and their leadership team and witnessed them release massive energy by declaring some key breakthroughs that extended not only throughout the entire organisaton but beyond, to have a vital impact on patients’ lives. Motivation was easy to find as people wanted to play a part in making a difference. Assumptions and sacred cows were challenged because the future state that had been declared demanded it. Collaboration across the function was catalysed, because no part could achieve it by themselves. But crucially, it was the leadership team’s shared commitment to vitality that allowed the focus not just to be on performance and what people were doing, but on creating an environment where people can thrive.

Vitality, the energy and strength it denotes, as well as the flexibility and appetite for change it encourages, depends on the constant, honest interaction of all elements across the whole organisation. It can only derive from a shared commitment to a bravely declared goal. With each individual and team fully committed to play its part, and understanding the part others’ play, high-vitality teams become power cells that collaborate to drive everyone forward. The energy of one stimulates energy in others and the overall vitality of team and organisation is boosted. 


Published 05/10/2021

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