How strengths can help support teams to address Lencioni’s five dysfunctions

Is the five dysfunctions of a team by Patrick Lencioni a useful model?

Have you come across Patrick Lencioni’s Five Dysfunctions of a Team? It’s a helpful model which describes where leadership teams can go wrong and it’s been around now for over 20 years. The downside of the model is that it’s not research based and so some of the advice provided to help teams become more effective isn’t necessarily based on evidence. So I like it as a conversation starter for teams to lean into some discomfort on where they may need to focus to improve their performance. But what I like less is the lack of solid developmental support to help a dysfunctional team become functional. It’s also primarily focused on leadership teams rather than any team.

Lencioni’s model is fairly widely known, given that the ‘business fable’ based book which describes the model was a best seller for some time and remains popular because it’s accessible and because it touches a nerve with many teams.  What I’d like to do in today’s episode is to take you through the five dysfunctions model and give you some commentary and then to speak to our StrengthscopeTeam model which provides some practical advice on overcoming any dysfunctional behaviour or practice and building a high performing team in its place.

The five dysfunctions of a team broken down into each stage

First of all, let’s go through the stages of team dysfunction and take each one by one:

  • Absence of trust: this is about being unwilling to be vulnerable within a team because you don’t feel you can trust your colleagues fully. This stage is closely related to the idea of psychological safety…a phrase coined by Amy Edmondson, which I cover in depth in Season 12, episode 6, so go check that out if you’d like more info. The point is that without trust, it’s unlikely that you’ll commit to shared goals as a team because the risk to you personally of others not delivering on their commitments is too great.
  • Fear of conflict: in this stage, the desire to preserve artificial harmony stifles constructive conflict within the team. I like to talk about ‘nice team syndrome’ which relates to this stage. This is when teams start moving into the natural and inevitable ‘storming’ phase of team development but because this can feel rocky and uncomfortable, they revert to ‘polite’ behaviours more closely associated with early ‘forming’ stage teams. And that prevents the team from dealing with issues such as a lack of clarity, unclear goals and so on. If you haven’t listened to it, I would suggest my podcast at Season 15, episode 4 – on Tuckman x strengths – to give you some more useful content on this topic. Constructive conflict is vital for teams so that they can learn to navigate differences of view and arrive at a process for collective decision making.
  • Lack of commitment: here, lack of clarity and/or pretending to buy in to group decisions prevents team members from sticking to decisions they have made. This is a classic sign of a team that hasn’t exited the storming stage of development and will typically see team members’ loyalties lying with their operational day to day teams or tasks rather than with the leadership team.
  • Avoidance of accountability: at this stage, the need to avoid interpersonal discomfort prevents team members from holding each other accountable for their behaviours and performance. Teams stuck here haven’t learned to give each other honest feedback – check out Kim Scott’s Radical Candor for more on how to give honest, clear and kind feedback to each other.
  • Inattention to team results: the final dysfunction is where some or all team members place emphasis on personal success, status and ego before team success. Again, team members get stuck in operational silos and focus on themselves and their day to day operational teams as the main focus for their results rather than taking collective responsibility for the delivery of the leadership team’s goals.

So that’s Lencioni – good model, if a little light on evidence. Works really well particularly with teams and in industries where there’s a natural focus on the negative and on risk management such as engineering environments.  I guess the question that the model has always left me asking is ‘what do I do when I’ve identified the dysfunction?’ and the Lencioni approach is less helpful in answering that question as some of the advice provided doesn’t really stack up from a psychological POV. For example, suggesting that a team go through a process of self disclosure in order to build trust when that might be the last thing any of them are prepared to do.

StrengthscopeTeam – taking team development to the next level

In developing our StrengthscopeTeam tool, what we’ve drawn from is the best of the best in research around high-performing teams and effective team development. We did look at the Lencioni model and saw the map across to our team development stages, but we also looked at some of the most trusted, research-based models of team functioning available, including Bruce Tuckman’s forming-storming-norming-performing model, Susan Wheelan’s integrated model of team development as well as Katzenbach and Smith’s ‘wisdom of teams’.

For us, it was the research credentials of these works that gave us confidence that we were developing a model that was going to be helpful in the vast majority of cases for teams. We also wanted to develop a model not just focused on leadership teams like Lencioni but on any team at any level and at any stage of development.

So what are the StrengthscopeTeam stages of team development?

  1. Aspirations/Clarity: initially, a team need to develop a clear set of aspirations which can provide clarity of goals, roles and responsibilities for the team. This relates to Tuckman’s ‘forming’ stage and Katzenbach and Smith’s focus on standards, direction and rules of behaviour.
  2. Awareness/Trust: of where individual team members’ strengths and performance risks lie as a safe and non-threatening means of building trust. This stage maps to Tuckman’s ‘forming’ and Katzenbach and Smith’s suggestion of focusing on skills, not personality.
  3. Action/Accountability: at this third stage, teams start to draw on each other’s strengths and ideas to reach clear decisions, agree on actions and ensure a high degree of accountability in delivering on those actions. This stage relates to Tuckman’s ‘norming’ and Katzenbach and Smith’s guidance to spend time together and identify immediate goals.
  4. Agility/Change readiness: here, the team starts to be able to prepare for and deal positively with change. This stage relates to Tuckman’s ‘performing’ stage and Katzenbach and Smith’s focus on ‘new information’.
  5. Achievement/Stretch: a team with positive ratings in this final stage will actively celebrate the team’s achievements as well as taking action to review and strengthen performance, ensuring continuous development and improvement. This final stage speaks to Katzenbach and Smith’s suggestion that the team should engage in positive feedback and recognition.

In developing our approach, we wanted to keep the measurement simple and to ensure that we integrated positive psychology principles, including strengths, at each step. So the guidance and advice we provide in our report is very much about practical steps that teams can take depending on the results they get.

For example, at the Awareness/Trust stage in the StrengthscopeTeam model, if team members report that they are not yet able to share ideas and views openly and honestly at team meetings (one of the twelve questions that we ask team members to rate), the recommendation is to carry out a review of team meetings as they run currently and ensure that meetings are chaired to ensure appropriate airtime for everyone, checking in with those less vocal that their views are adequately represented.

We also ask team members to rate the team’s effectiveness from 1-10 and then ask what one thing the team could do to get closer to a 10 in the next 90 days.  As well as asking what team members feel is already working well in the team that could be built upon. This approach, based on the positive psychology practice of appreciative inquiry, throws up very practical and realistic ideas.

Where do strengths feature in the StrengthscopeTeam model and approach?

As you would expect, strengths and risks form a major feature of the StrengthscopeTeam tool. We present a composite team wheel which shows all 24 Strengthscope strengths in terms of how many people in the team report each strength in their top 7. This gives an accurate indication of the likely natural behaviour of the team at a sub-conscious level. By bringing this information into the consciousness of the team, the team is able to be more intentional about using its strengths collectively rather than having the strengths work at the individual level or at the unmanaged group level.

For example, say a team reports a clear strength of Decisiveness.  Until they know this, the team may well see that energy for decision making manifest at the individual, sub-team level without having formulated an effective process for joint decision making where team members are being asked to debate and agree team decisions, communicate and implement them in a consistent manner. By bringing the team’s awareness to the potential that this strength has for delivering effective outcomes, the team is empowered to channel this energy towards joint decision making at the team level.

The same is true for potential strengths in overdrive. For example, a highly Relational team with few Execution strengths which doesn’t know that it has this distribution of strengths may well find that during team meetings, the team spends a good deal of time debating ideas but when it comes to locking down to actions and deliverables, this isn’t a natural next step. Drawing the team’s awareness to the strengths and the risks that it has enables the team to put in place processes that gives members the airtime they need to share and debate as well as creating action plans for which individuals are accountable.

So does StrengthscopeTeam work?  And should you choose Lencioni or StrengthscopeTeam?

With the StrengthscopeTeam model, we wanted a positive psychology-based, practical tool, based on sound research and useful to teams and to team development facilitators.

The feedback we regularly get is that we have achieved this. We often hear gasps in the room when we reveal a team’s strengths wheel as so many questions about team behaviour are answered in that moment.

And the diagnostic data that responses to the team habits questions provides to a facilitator is gold. You can get an immediate sense of the team’s stage of development, as well as accessing simple, practical ideas that can move the team forward in its development.

So, to the million dollar question… should you use Lencioni or StrengthscopeTeam? I would say both have their place and both can be used together really effectively. We’ve done this numerous times with great results. Where Lencioni is able to identity team problems and issues, which can be very useful in helping teams to face into what’s holding them back, StrengthscopeTeam can provide an empowering collective experience which allows the team to arrive at simple, effective solutions to move forward.

If you’d like to talk to us about anything covered in this episode please do get in touch. We’re always happy for the conversation. Till next time, stay strong.


  • Katzenbach, J. R., & Smith, D. K. (1992). The wisdom of teams. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.
  • Katzenbach, J. R., & Smith, D. K. (1993). The discipline of teams. The Harvard Business Review.
  • Tuckman, B. W. (1965). Developmental sequence in small groups. Psychological Bulletin, 63, 384–399.
  • Tuckman, B. W. & Jensen, M. A. (1977). Stages of small-group development revisited. Group Org. Studies 2:419-27
  • Wheelan, S. A. (1994a). Group processes: A developmental perspective. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
  • Wheelan, S., Davidson, B., & Tilin, F. (2003). Group development across time: Reality or illusion? Small Group Research, 34 (2), 223–245.