The Nonprofit Bookshelf: The 5 Dysfunctions of a Team


No matter the size of your team or how long you’ve been working together, you are bound to encounter office politics time and again. Someone is jockeying for attention, someone is famously unreliable, the 2 managers down the hall are always butting heads. These are the dynamics that make for a fun episode of The Office, but an unproductive workplace IRL.
For nonprofits, team dysfunction can lead to reduced impact, which can affect many more people than the employees in your office. Consultant and speaker Patrick Lencioni spent decades helping leaders improve their organizations’ health before writing The 5 Dysfunctions of a Team. Lencioni identified what the most common dysfunctions are for teams, where they come from, and how members of those teams can work through these challenges to become more cohesive and productive.
So, why should nonprofits care? Your teams are the ones changing the world! Read on for the 5 icebergs to move around to help your teams become more functional, so you have more time to make the world a little bit more functional.

Dysfunction #1: Absence of Trust

What this looks like: The fear of being vulnerable with your coworkers. Employees won’t speak up to flag a problem because they’re afraid of being wrong. Or they won’t admit to mistakes or that they need help on a project. This results in work not being done on time, people feeling uncomfortable, or huge mistakes being missed.

How to fix it: Managers, bosses, and team leaders must set the example by admitting their own weaknesses, mistakes, or limitations. Slowly, your employees and coworkers will follow. Then everyone will be more vocal about mistakes, problems, or needs and any potential icebergs will be swerved.

Dysfunction #2: Fear of Conflict

What this looks like: Avoiding confrontation when coworkers disagree with one another or with their superiors — resulting in a lack of overall communication. Instead of working through a dialogue, major conversations happen in backchannels or not at all. This results in time wasted, issues being glossed over, and building resentment.

How to fix it: Establish that conflict can be constructive, productive, and meaningful. Ask coworkers their opinions and follow-up questions to draw out their true feelings if they are shy. You can also throw in bad ideas or act as devil’s advocate in meetings to encourage people to share differing perspectives. Consider how Radical Candor (another #NonprofitBookshelf favorite) may be one way of navigating feedback in a way that cares personally and challenges directly.

Dysfunction #3: Lack of Commitment

What this looks like: Employees aren’t buying into the mission, vision, or work. No decisions are made and employees aren’t excited about their projects. This results in employees feeling disgruntled, disorganized, and unmotivated.

How to fix it: Be clear with all projects. Set deadlines, write up detailed instructions, maintain timelines, and delegate tasks. Identify who owns what and follow-up with them regularly. When holding meetings, always begin with an agenda and end with clear next steps. Take notes and send them around afterward so everyone has them in writing. (If you want to go deeper on this, check out the rider and the elephant metaphor in Switch).

Dysfunction #4: Avoidance of Accountability

What this looks like: Dysfunctions #1 and #3 lead to #4. Math! Avoidance of accountability happens when there isn’t a clear direction and employees don’t feel like they can trust their coworkers to follow through on projects. So they add more work to their own plates, resulting in mediocre deliverables, poor performers slipping under the radar, and top performers burning out.

How to fix it: Solve dysfunctions 1 and 3 and encourage delegating work. Practice giving each other feedback using the SBI framework — situation, behavior, impact. This ties the feedback to an event and action rather than an individual. Incorporate SBI feedback into everything from presentations, manager check-ins, and deliverable reviews so employees know what they are held accountable for and how they can improve. Clear standards and quarterly or bi-annual progress reviews also help.

Dysfunction #5: Inattention to Results

What this looks like: Humans naturally focus on what benefits them (promotions, raises, benefits, etc) rather than the collective. Nonprofit professionals have causes they care deeply about — that’s why they work at nonprofits! But if they don’t understand how their work contributes to their organization’s overall mission, and to the world at large, they may feel unmotivated or focus on the internal competition.

How to fix it: Set clear goals both internally and externally. Tie the goals to real life and continuously reference these goals to keep employees on track. Work in a system of praise and rewards to retain top performers, and make them feel appreciated. (Check out The Power of Habit and Leadership and Self-Deception as two other great resources for this process.) Focus on reducing the other 4 dysfunctions on your team first to increase trust, accountability, and comfort, and then inattention to results will be easier to fix.

So, what now?

Assess the dysfunctions that exist on your team — if any —and then identify how to address those issues using our guide above. Consider investing in a project management tool to streamline some of these processes, and keep making feedback the norm.
When you set clear deadlines and goals, communicate effectively, regularly give feedback, and maintain accountability, you can build a more functional team. Which, because we’re all working to make the world a better place, means a lot for the rest of the globe.

If you have any questions or other favorite takeaways from The 5 Dysfunctions of a Team, share them with us and tweet @WholeWhale.


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