The 6th Dysfunction of a Team

Good teams are where you find them. And these days they are everywhere—at least in name.

I’ve witnessed many organizations transition to “team-based” ministry simply by applying the word as a suffix to their existing groups (e.g., The ushers become “The Ushering Team,” the Customer Service staff becomes a “Customer Service Team”). In the long-term this move usually accomplishes only one thing: convincing everyone that the whole “team” thing has no merit—which it doesn’t when handled that way.

This trend illustrates just how easy it is to get a really important idea really wrong. In his classic book, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, Patrick Lencioni outlines the primary ways in which good intentions turn into bad teams. The five include:

1. Absence of trust
2. Fear of conflict
3. Lack of commitment
4. Avoidance of accountability
5. Inattention to results

As our new church in Berkeley transitioned from the resource-development phase to the team-building phase a few years ago, I was forced to reconsider all of these issues.

My conclusion is that Lencioni basically has it right, even if some of his concepts are a bit more complicated to apply in the non-profit sector with its volunteer staffing.

However, at least one potential “dysfunction” could be added to his list of five: the leader’s misplaced belief that my next team must be like (or unlike) my last team. This is the sixth dysfunction.

An effective pastor friend, for example, recently voiced frustration over his inability to replicate a very positive 1980’s staff experience with the groups he led in later decades, despite repeated attempts. I suspect he speaks for many others in many fields.

Looking back over my own experience, I feel very fortunate to have worked with some  great people in team settings, but only recently have I realized how radically different all of these groups were from each other.

My training taught me to beware of looking for teammates who are too much like me. And that’s good advice. But no one ever warned me about two other temptations: (1) if my last team experience was positive, I may attempt to recreate it even if it does not fit my new context well, or; (2) if the preceding team environment turned out poorly, I may bypass people I need in my new situation just because they resemble some bad memories.

At first it seems easy to grasp why a new team should be quite distinct from the last. After all, the new task likely has requirements, goals, resources, and infrastructure that are unlike what I’ve experienced in the past. So putting together a completely new kind of team seems like the logical thing to do.

Until you try it. Then my last team easily becomes the standard of measurement by which I evaluate prospects and procedures for the new group.

The search for a personal “comfort zone” can blind me to the very people and practices I need, while bringing in those that remind me of my last positive experience. Working this way can lure me into creating a “sequel” to my last leadership role, forsaking the fresh, creative team format that likely is necessary to succeed in a new context.

The first step in forming a new team, then, is a “funeral” for the last one. Not that the relationships or the fruitfulness or the good memories are lost, but I must say “goodbye” to those days. Being informed by experience is fine. Being controlled by it is not.

A new team’s life depends on a fresh start in which it is not compared to a group that no longer exists. Our memories of the past can be as much mythology as history so their navigational value is questionable anyway.

So to build the next group, let the last one go. Pray for the laborers to be thrust into the harvest field. And ask the Holy Spirit for the discernment to see who they are and how to work with them in new ways.