Written by Jeff Wellstead, Founder & CEO of Big Bear Partners, Ltd.

When one of my peers bought Patrick Lencioni’s book, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, for me, my first thought wasn’t a positive one. 

I immediately thought: “Gee, thanks…What I always wanted, a book to tell me how screwed up our company is. While oversimplifying it into five reasons with some fancy consultancy speak to prove the author’s point.” 

I’m always wary of fancy-suited consultancies pitching, “There are only five of those, 3 of these and 7 of the other to think about.”  With 30 years of HR leadership experience, I can assure you there is far more than three, five or seven buckets to fill when it comes to dysfunctional human behaviour in human organisations!  

But I give it a read and then saw the following graphic for clarity’s sake:

teams

Dysfunctional Teams: I got it instantly  

I could instantly relate to the 5 dysfunctions that Mr Lencioni puts forth in his parable. Down the right-hand side are some issues that almost every company I’ve worked for suffered from.

Most of them couldn’t get beyond the Trust factor full stop, much less evolve up the pyramid to manage Constructive Conflict, build Commitment or engender any personal sense of Accountability that translates into superior Results.  

In actuality, my experience with organisations and the leadership that shapes their cultural norms often involved hiring the best and brightest minds available. Then pulling the wool over their eyes about the trust issues.  And straightaway pushing them into being committed and accountable. 

Unfortunately, this tapped into their desire to belong to a known brand to create a resume passport stamp that says “I was special enough to work here,” which typically lasted no more than 18 months to 2 years. After which, they’d politely bow out and thank the mad leaders for the “wonderful opportunity” to work alongside some terrific people, sort of thing on LinkedIn.  

Sadly it’s more common than not to work in a dysfunctional organisation. Unfortunately, it’s far easier to create one of those than a high performing organisation.

To achieve the latter, we need to consciously focus with awareness and intention about engendering trust. Provide a constructive channel for conflict. And organically encourage everyone to commit to a cause by being highly accountable on a personal level to produce exponential results.  

Examples Of Other Teams

I’ve found some powerful examples (which aren’t perfect, I can assure you). Wherein the founders and leadership foresaw and understood the natural chaotic behaviours that large groups of people could tend toward. 

My favourite example I point to is Reed Hastings’ Netflix.  What I like about their journey of discovery and is that Reed engaged directly with Patty McCord – his first HR leader – whose ideas about hiring the best people, paying them well, treating them like adults offering them the freedom to solve problems within a framework of responsibility – whilst being rather selective about the folks who make the cut – was enlightened.

They built their model over ten years, having experimented endlessly with a variety of approaches.  

What they landed on was memorialised in Patty’s book Powerful, where she very honestly outlines how they created the Freedom and Responsibility framework and instilled some fundamental behaviours that they strongly encouraged everyone to embrace.  

It wasn’t a dictum as much as it rewarded the desirable behaviours and firmly dealt with folks who didn’t buy into the framework’s approach.  

Netflix is amongst a rather small group of clever companies who fall into the Venn Diagram centre, where Great Place to Work overlaps with the Highest Net Employee Promoter Score, along with strong Top Pay and Benefits, Endless Opportunities and Bring Your Whole Self to Work.  

Naturally, there is a dark side to this: it’s a highly selective culture.  If you don’t engage, you’re gone. And if you stay, you’re going to work hard to keep up your end of the bargain. 

But according to their Glassdoor reviews, 92% of employees approve of Reed’s approach, and 76% would recommend it to a friend.  I’d say that’s far better than average. And the shareholders seem to think Netflix is still a great company to own.  

My experience in different teams

My own experience working in a high performing environment would have included my time at Goldman Sachs as a recruiter or my time at Peoplesoft prior to Oracle’s acquisition.  

In both cases, there were ridiculously high standards in recruitment (took me 11 interviews to get an offer). But once in, it was a factor of keeping pace, if not excelling.  Culture translates into a sense of being part of an elite tribe of uniquely capable people.  

That sensation of having ‘arrived’ felt good at the bar with your friends outside of work, but “You’re only as good as your last trade,” was the continual refrain amongst employees at Goldman.  

High performing cultures can create competitive environments, which can tilt positively to drive up quality outcomes or negatively when it becomes political.

If leadership doesn’t stop it from happening, then trust is out the window. Conflict becomes nasty, commitment becomes selfishly oriented, and accountability is all about who to blame when the boss is less than satisfied.  

And you’re right back in Dysfunctionville all over again.  

But let’s go back to our example

Reed Hastings is hard-driving, highly competitive and super clever, but he’s also all about his people. He knows full well that without these bright sparks shining their light on Netflix’s deepest challenges, he’s just another fleeting success story walking the streets of Silicon Valley.  

He pulled together some of the best minds and made sure the voice of the people was represented.  He plays hard, takes big bets on hiring the best, paying the top end, trusting them to solve problems with lots of latitudes. He also takes swift and direct action against anyone who isn’t pulling their weight (with a respectful severance package).  

He does what he says he will do.  More so than many leaders these days.  

He encourages intelligent and constructive conflict. It’s not very comfortable initially, but you learn how to focus on the problem and not the people involved.  

The vision sits at the centre of everything – and says, “We’re going to make people’s lives better in these ways…” and mean it.  That creates a personal sense of commitment and ownership.  

And there is always an explicit focus on the end game, what must be delivered. No black boxes or secret agendas. OKRs (Objectives and Key Results), published everywhere, with hundreds of subordinate OKRs, are broadcast across every laptop in the company.  

That’s where accountability is tracked, and commitment is measured. There are no questions about what you’re there to do or what Netflix is laser-focused on.  It’s all there in black and white, and you just need to do your bit to deliver it. 

My conclusion…

The Five Dysfunctions are sadly very familiar to me as I’ve lived in that world far more than I’ve lived in the inspired “High-Performance Land.”  And it sucked as the company wobbled and dragged itself along, especially in an HR role.  

I wasn’t inspired to fix everything, but I tried. It was just too daunting, and I couldn’t change how leaders behaved in the end. 

At the apex of my career, I’ve become far more entrepreneurial and offer the wealth of my own experience to help HR teams build their people strategy consultancy. 

My focus is to show leaders how NOT to be dysfunctional and design the business that would inspire them, starting with trust as the basis for the journey to high performance.

So much work goes into achieving and earning the trust of others; as it’s said, “you earn trust in drips and lose it in buckets.” 

If you think about architecting your culture, underpinning it with meaningful core values, then refer to those religiously in every decision you make (especially the hardest ones). 

  • Loudly reward the folks who thrive in the culture. 
  • Urgently course-correct those who struggle keeping pace.
  • Keep the vision front and centre every day of that business’ life.

Then, you’re in with a chance.  It requires you as a leader to keep the faith, toe the line, and keep one another honest, constructively.  

If you collectively own the dream of working with inspiring people, delivering great products to delighted customers, you might just find yourself feeling rather proud about the whole thing.  

Check out MIT Sloan’s annual Culture 500 report to get a sense of how employees view the cultures within which they work.

About the Author

teamsJeff Wellstead began his 30+ year human resource leadership career in NYC working with global consulting, investment banking and technology organisations for 17 years until his move to the UK, where he’s focused on the technology & biotech SME and start-up sector in the UK for the last 16 years.

Jeff is an expert in transformative talent development across all HR lifecycle activity having worked with Fortune 100 global brands including Merrill Lynch, Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, Accenture, HP/EDS, Novartis and PeopleSoft/Oracle – and high-tech, hyper-growth start-up companies such as MessageLabs (now Symantec), SpinVox (now Nuance), Dialog Semiconductor, Skype (now Microsoft), MetaPack (now Stamps.com), Brady Plc, Oxford Nanoimaging and Summit Therapeutics.  

Jeff founded Big Bear Partners, Ltd. To help companies undergoing tectonic shifts in exponential computational shifts, needing to re-engineer their people strategies, attract, retain and develop differentiated skills and capabilities and embrace the spectrum of new workforce innovations across the entire talent management strategy.