What I learned from Lencioni’s 5 Dysfunctions and its links to Sustainable Performance Excellence

The intro – Another bloody book to read

Towards the end of 2020 I was introduced to a new department within a water company. They wanted to start a ‘Sustainable Performance Excellence’ journey for all of their teams.  

 “what have you been up to previously”, I asked. 

  “we did some work around Patrick Lencioni’s 5 dysfunctions”, was the response. 

 My immediate thought was, I’ve not read that and so I asked the leader to tell me more. As he described what they had done, their engagement with it and the fact they all had a copy of the book I decided I need to read this, at least so I can understand what has come before. 

 So, I got a copy of the 5 dysfunctions and since then I’ve read it twice. I love the story. Partly because it’s a story and so I find it easier to engage in it but also because as I read, I realised the close connections between the key lessons I believe Lencioni was trying to impart and the work we have been doing around our Sustainable Performance Excellence programmes. 

If you haven’t read it it’s about Kathryn, a new CEO who has been brought in to help the exec team to become a better functioning team. 

Here’s a link to a bit more of an overview of what the books about

Following my first read I decided I needed to help the team link what they had started through to what they would do next and that’s why I wrote this blog. It’s for the team to help them understand at a deeper level, to generate some further conversations and to tie an existing pathway into a new one.

And so, here’s the notes I made as I thought about Lencioni’s fable and what we call Sustainable Performance Excellence (SPEx)

The problem – Teamwork

 The book describes teamwork as a rarity, elusive, that teams are inherently dysfunctional and its bigger than strategy. I agree. Kathryn, the person brought in as the new CEO didn’t have a huge background in operations, but she did know about teams. A very astute decision was made bringing in this person as the problem had been identified as a problem with teamwork.  

Do you have a problem with teamwork? Lots of teams will say they work well together or that they are high performing but their marker around what teamwork really means is way off. I’m not sure how common it is for a business leader to target this type of problem but given the importance of teamwork surely it should be more common. Why isn’t it? (Another blog maybe). 

WE ASKED 40 LEADERS ‘what were the business problems they were looking to solve in 2022’ – NONE OF THEM SAID TEAMWORK – 0%

Teamwork is a goal and is the basis of both the book and SPEx. 

The commitment – Leadership

 The company in the story was having a tough time. There was a reason for change that was backed by the board, hence why they brought in a new CEO. Support at the top needs to exist in this story otherwise the change that happens next is largely unachievable. Whenever a SPEx programme is proposed it’s the same requirement. In fact, for any change in any organisation there needs to be the backing from the right level of leadership to ensure its successful. This isn’t anything new, in fact everyone seems to know this. So why does this problem seem to surface again and again? 

“Leadership commitment to the cause, else forget the cause” 

You can see the potential impact of this when the team are asked to attend an offsite where a few people have a problem accepting the importance of spending this time and initially close off to the challenge. The behaviours they display are clearly negative, but they can’t see it. This is interesting as they have been given the remit to prioritise it. Without the backing from the board, this problem would have been difficult to work through. 

Kathryn is looking at this initially as an outsider and so can see things differently. This can happen with SPEx if the coach is able to spend enough time observing. There is a point of clarity at the outset where she highlights the need to ‘let it happen’. Again, leaders at the top of the organisation need to understand what is been asked to commence and to back it otherwise it is pointless starting and can be more damaging. Imagine if Kathryn had been removed after just the first couple of months, the company would have been doomed. 

Clarity at the outset for what comes next is key. Are the right people bought in and are they clear on what they are bought in to?

The people – Getting to know eachother

When Kathryn finally gets the team into an offsite, she helps to bring out some personal things that bring them together a bit more. During the lockdown, using MIRO based sessions to do this sort of activity have worked really well. 

Actually, being able to connect with people in their own homes has given teams an insight into each other out of the office without much additional effort once they’ve got comfortable with putting camera’s on.

During the first offsite she also gets them doing a Myers Briggs exercise and even discussing each other’s types. Now some people may think these things old hat, but they have immense value, if used in the right way. There are lots of different methods, over the past year I’ve been using the Enneagram but more commonly Nigel Risners ‘it’s a zoo around here’. Nigel’s model helps teams to understand different personality types and improve their communication. I couldn’t help myself, I tried to capture what I had learned about them from the book against Nigel’s model.

  • Kathryn – Lion
  • Jeff – Elephant/Dolphin
  • Mikey – Lion
  • Martin – Elephant
  • JR – Lion/Monkey
  • Carlos – Dolphin
  • Jan – Elephant/Dolphin
  • Nick – Lion

If you take a look at Nigel’s website you’ll get the gist (Nigel Risner | It’s a Zoo Quiz), it’s a great way to make sense how people are and overlaid on Lencioni’s story it makes it even more relatable and a great way to deepen the learning when you can see the behaviours playing out. If you read both, let me know if you think these are different.

What do you do in your teams? Do you promote this level of understanding and do they understand each other enough to communicate on each other’s terms?

The Challenge – what is the team fighting for

In order to get the team onto a common ground around what the joint focus is, Kathryn creates a challenge statement. She states they have more skills, better products and working capital but they are still behind their competitors – or something to that effect. During the SPEx engagements I’ve been involved with, setting the challenge is fundamental to the sustainability. Getting the challenge right though is no simple task as it needs to resonate with everyone, they need to care. 

I really like what she does next with this challenge. She refuses to stop saying it until it is no longer true. That’s not that she says it every 2 minutes, but she does open every one of their main meetings with it. She uses it as a tool to remind the team constantly about the direction they are moving in and the big challenge. Another great example I’ve seen of this is Jurgen Klopp not allowing the team to touch the ‘this is Liverpool’ sign until they had won a trophy.

“Boss wouldn’t let us touch the sign until we won a trophy” – Gini Wijnaldum

A constant reminder of the direction towards the big challenge and creation of a desire to reach it. 

Setting challenges is at the core of SPEx and the improvement and coaching habits created that support this. 

What cause is your team fighting for right now? How do you know they are? What big challenge are the team working towards? 

The meetings – when the team comes together

There is a great example in the book when Martin starts to work on his laptop during the first meeting. He’s disengaged and demonstrating a behaviour that is opposed to that of ‘team’. He points out that the conversation isn’t always relevant and so he’s given a chance to speak up. If we think about when we are on teams calls (a large part of the day probably) how engaged are we with what is in front of us? Often people will be doing other things with cameras off. This is the Martin equivalent.


With lots of meetings it’s important that they bring value. The stats in this article highlight just that. The stats in this article ‘The state of meetings in 2020′

Kathryn understands that a great team spends a decent amount of time together. At the heart of what we have been doing with SPEx is the idea of spending time together and lowering some of the barriers that may exist whilst driving through conversations that help the group to come together, closer as a team.

When the team comes together, do they actually come together, do they connect?

The mindsets – Are people willing to change

I’m going to focus on one character here and that’s Mikey, the marketing VP. She has a very closed mindset. The whole of the time she does not open up, she is very focused on individual rather than team. Mikey is unable to integrate into the team in large as they begin to move mindsets more to the ‘how can we…’state and they develop more trust. The challenge for Mikey is that of self-awareness and an open mindset. Mikey is unable to look at herself objectively. She probably realises it is there but doesn’t feel comfortable in acting on it. When asked about her weaknesses she points to her financial skills (a safe response). For some reason Mikey cannot trust. 

Mikey is an extreme example of someone that cannot take a look in the mirror. Self-awareness is really low even when confronted with the situation around leaving the team. When we talk about putting up the mirror it takes a leader willing to accept that they are not perfect, that they need to work on themselves and potentially change. Kathryn is asking all of the team to change in some way and an inability to take a look in the mirror and accept the reality is a major barrier. 

This is the grounding of everything we are doing within a SPEx programme as changing the environment for teams starts with the idea that leaders have the biggest influence on creating that environment. 


How often do you hold the mirror up and how does that change what you do next? 

Dysfunction 1 – Absence of trust


There is an obvious link here as Trust is at the base of how we approach SPEx. Great teams don’t hold back with one another. It’s safe. This is where Katherine focussed first and where we start with a conversation around Mindset, Trust and Habits. In the story the team challenge that there is an absence of trust – Kathryn points to a lack of debate as an indicator of this. If you observe your teams in their meetings what can you learn, is there a lack of debate? 

I love the fact that Lencioni brings in the word ‘invulnerability’ when talking around trust. 

“The ability to put yourself out there without a fear of being judged”. Kathryn asks what the team think they are good and bad at? What don’t they know, and not pretending. 

Vulnerability is huge in trust. Where does this lie in the trust equation. Showing vulnerability could make you more credible. It could endear you to the other person and build more intimacy and it could also help demonstrate you are not so much self-orientated as you are willing to let your guard down. 

There’s a great example where Kathryn has to deal with a situation with Nick. His behaviours are not helping the team and when understood it materialises that Nick feels undervalued and underutilised. He’s even moved his family to do this job. The thing is the team don’t know Nick feels like this. Once Nick faces into this and puts his vulnerability on the table things start to change. At this point a higher level of trust was reached between Nick and his team members.

I wonder how much energy is lost by a team with low trust as they expend on the activities that a low trust environment breeds? It’s difficult to measure and so it’s hard for leaders to put a cost to it, hence its often the invisible ingredient that leaders cannot grasp as they focus on the hard and fast metrics. True teamwork is difficult and illusive remember.


Heres a link to our Trust tool based on Steven Coveys 13 high trust behaviours to help think about measuring trust

Literally everything that we do during a SPEx engagement is grounded in the question ‘is this helping to build more trust?’. There are lots of ways to keep building this within your teams and lots of ways to destroy it also. Having an understanding of how to do this is at the heart of what we are doing.

Dysfunction 2 – Absence of conflict

If we don’t trust each other, we won’t have constructive conflict. That’s a fact! 

What is constructive conflict. It’s the type that is focussed on shared goals. False harmony in a team is not good i.e., nobody wants to piss anyone off. SPEx is about creating the environment and promoting the idea that trust is important, and trust cannot exist without constructive conflict. 

I really liked the part in the book where Katherine says, 

“How many of you would rather go to a meeting than a movie? Meetings should at least be as interesting as movies. Meetings and movies are about as long and meetings are interactive where movies are not and they don’t have any real impact. Meetings are interactive and releveant so why don’t we look forward to them? To understand why meetings are boring we can compare them to films. Every movie has one key ingredient and that’s conflict” Kathyrn

Just have a think about that for a minute. I’m with Kathryn. 

To explore this Kathryn looks to get agreement on one goal. In SPEx we look at purpose, vision, and measures to help teams identify this. How well does your team prioritise problems, resources, challenges? Believe me when you look for the absence of constructive conflict you will more than likely find it. 

Dysfunction 3 – Lack of commitment

Evidence of this is ambiguity. Most people don’t need to get their way in a discussion, they just need to be heard. Kathryn points to the idea of disagree and commit. Hear people out but then move forward towards the greater goal. Weigh in before buy in. 

The idea of a SPEx environment is to bring everyone’s voice every day so that they can weigh in. How do Huddles and meetings drive this kind of outcome or do they have this dysfunction inherent in them? 

A concept that I also picked up from the book around this one was the discussion around ‘who is your first team?’. Now this is an interesting question. If you have a team of leaders who have their own teams/departments who do they see as their first team? Your first team has to be your leadership team as that’s where key decisions will need to be made towards the collective good and future of the business. It’s not about abandoning your people but about ensuring the business/whole is being led by the strongest team it can and so this has to be your first team. Anything else will inevitably undermine the leadership team at some stage as the needs and desires of manged teams will be protected and politics will surface. As people protect their own function. 

Have you ever considered this question? I hadn’t before reading this, but I believe this is a huge question for any leadership team to face into. 


Dysfunction 4 – Avoidance of accountability

Once you have the buy in then you need to hold each other to account. In SPEx we develop the idea of habits and behaviours. Once leaders and their teams have developed their idea of what these look like it is fundamental that leaders begin to display these in order to role model. They are being accountable for their own behaviours. The idea of creating a shared vision helps to develop this within the teams as getting commitment to the vision helps to then create accountability to help move towards that direction.  

A good way to drive accountability is to a have clear set of standards and goals that everyone understands. The enemy of accountability is ambiguity. In a SPEx engagement we are consistently driving understanding and clarity especially around standards, measures, and vision as well as through conversations in meetings and huddles. Therefore, we are ultimately trying to push through accountability but not to a number, more towards the team as this is stronger. This requires trust to be built at the foundation and hence that’s why we start there. 

Does accountability exist within your team? How accountable are you being? 


Dysfunction 5 – Inattention to results

When we focus on developing measures, we help teams to look for those that are linked to purpose and if we have multiple teams, we look for commonality of purpose and a shared vision. This helps to drive the idea of common goals for the team. If you have multiple Silo’s where some win and some lose then this dysfunction is inherent in the design. Shared goals are paramount, and, in this book, it’s given as the example of ‘the teams score’ and not the individuals. 


These stats demonstrate, siloes are all too real

A great example from the book is when Kathryn introduces the idea of moving resources from one department to another to help achieve the bigger goals. She uses a basketball analogy of everyone needing to know how they contribute e.g., everyone is responsible for marketing not just Mikey. She is pointing to the team score. 

In SPEx we are promoting the idea that everyone across each team is responsible for each part e.g., we are all responsible for the call demand coming into our front-end call centre. 

If you asked the question across your management team, who is succeeding and who isn’t, what is the conclusion you come to, honestly?

The journey – When you start to see

It’s fair to say that the team in the story are on a journey and that journey will have its ups and downs. It’s much the same with a SPEx journey. 

At the end of the first session JR points to the idea that they may not require the next sessions as they have got things sorted. At this point the other people within the team demonstrate they have seen the value and want to continue. This can happen, a lot, as everyone is on their own journey and some can see value quicker than others. As the process unfolds leaders begin to see and even enjoy the journey. They protect what they are building.  

How often have you started something and tailed off before you’ve given it a chance to really get going? We’ve all done it. 

 “If we build sandcastles together we’ll work together to protect against the tide. If we build on our own, good luck!” – Jason

The ownership – Leaders pass it on

The reason why we have the word ‘Sustainable’ prior to Performance Excellence is because without sustainability being a goal then we may as well not even start. 

When Joseph starts as the new VP of marketing towards the end of the story, the team take him through the 5 dysfunctions, not Kathryn. This demonstrates their understanding and commitment to the thinking, the challenge, and the direction she has set. In SPEx we use the same approach of helping leaders to think differently and explore their own way in by owning and delivering to their teams. If weeks later we see those leaders continuing to use the same thinking and language as well as showing the same levels of desire and curiosity, this demonstrates a shift and a sustained effort in the right direction. 

Have a think about the last cultural change effort you had a go at and ask yourself, how well did that sustain? There’s learning to be had from understanding this question alone and if you’re going again you should definitely try to draw learning from previous efforts.

And so, In conclusion…

So, after writing this up its clear to me there are lots of links and valuable lessons in here. It’s helped me to think about the work I’ve been heavily invested in for the past 2 years and how I can continue to be a student of this thinking. If I go back through and pull in the key words from each heading, I wrote I really like how this describes the links I was trying to understand perfectly and the nature of what I’ve been embroiled in pre and post covids emergence: 

Teamwork, Leadership, People, Challenge, Meetings, Mindsets, Trust, Conflict, Commitment, Accountability, Results, Journey, Ownership 

If you haven’t read the 5 dysfunctions, hopefully this will prompt you to have a look although I’m half expecting that everyone bar me has already done so and drawn their own lessons. Hopefully, this article will help to get you thinking as much as writing it did for me. 

Thanks for reading.


To learn more about our Sustainable Performance Excellence programmes https://getknowledge.co.uk/customer-leaders/




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