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Why Teams Fail, Part 1: Fear of Being Vulnerable

Updated: Nov 1, 2023

We’ve all been there. You’re sitting in the weekly status meeting while the leader follows an agenda written that morning, just waiting for the hour to be up. There isn’t much discussion of anything, and what there is feels like people are saying what they are expected to say.

5 Reasons Teams Fail -- Part 1, Fear of Being Vulnerable

Occasionally things get spirited, but typically the conversation is squashed with a “let’s table that for now” comment to tone down the emotions. Other times the conversation is dominated by one or two very loud people. Certainly, nobody is disagreeing with anyone else. Several people are looking at their phones and there are a couple of laptops open. Some decisions are made, but you know a summary will be published later in the day so no real need to pay attention. At the top of the hour the meeting is adjourned, and you know whatever agenda items didn’t get discussed will be there next week.

Welcome to modern leadership. There is so much wrong with this imaginary scenario, yet it is played out every day in conference rooms across the country, day in and day out. It’s no wonder everyone seems to hate status meetings. They’re boring and ineffective.

This is the first of a series of articles in which we discuss the issues described above. We will talk about why they happen, and we will discover some very simple concepts that are easy to understand but kind of difficult to put into practice.

I’ve been that leader described above, I’ve been the person looking at their phone, I’ve certainly sat in meetings with my laptop open and I definitely used to run my weekly status meetings this way. I finally figured out how to solve this dark scenario and I’ve seen the results. If you recognize yourself in any (or all) of the positions above, this series of articles is for you.

Explore The 5 Reasons Teams Fail

Dysfunction Causes Teams to Fail

To be clear, the concepts I will talk about are not my own. A great business writer by the name of Patrick Lencioni has written a series of management books that have changed my approach to almost everything I do in business. His consulting firm charges boat loads of money for his seminars and professional consulting. This article is not going to replace all that and you are still going to want to go get his books, but it is going to give you a lot to think about. So, this isn’t my original thinking, but I have put the principles I am going to talk about into practice in very real situations — I have seen how powerful they can be. I want to share that with you.

In his book, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, Lencioni describes a basic set of human behaviors that we all have, and that lead to the dreaded weekly status meeting.

What makes a team functional?

Let’s first talk about teamwork. It’s an overused and misunderstood concept, but amazingly companies that fail rarely have it, and successful companies almost always have it. It’s a very real thing that will create a sustainable competitive advantage in a company if done right.

You don’t hear much about teamwork from the experts, because it is a very difficult thing to measure, and the tendency is to look for more measurable variables like cost or sales.

It’s also very hard to do teamwork right. I describe it as ‘sanding against the grain’ because the very things that make us comfortable as humans in a group must change in order for these concepts to work. It will require emotional energy and it will definitely be uncomfortable at first. This emotional investment is well worth the effort though as you see the change in your company, and in you as a person.

Lencioni’s theory is that there are five basic dysfunctions that cause a breakdown in the team dynamic, specifically in meetings. These dysfunctions are stacked like Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs:

Five Basic Dysfunctions of a Team visualized, stacked in a triangle

If the foundation dysfunction is in play, it makes no sense to explore the one above it, and so on. You have to start at the very basic dysfunction, solve that, and then attack the next. What is fascinating about these five dysfunctions is that most management and leadership issues will distill down to them. Solve these and many of your leadership issues will improve.

Ok, let’s get to the first and most critical of Lencioni’s Five Dysfunctions.

The Fear of Being Vulnerable Prevents Trust

To cut to the chase, you guys in that status meeting don’t trust each other. I’m not talking about trusting someone with your lunch money, or the kind of comfort-based trust that comes from relationships; that stuff is easy. The trust I’m talking about is about being vulnerable and being willing to speak out in a meeting setting without fear of blowback or retribution.

A team that has real trust in each other are not afraid to admit the truth about themselves (“I’m having trouble understanding this conversation”). They aren’t afraid to ask dumb questions (“Are you talking about stock options?”) and they are not worried about being judged for their positions or opinions on a subject (“I think you’re wrong and here’s why…”). They aren’t afraid to call each other out in a heated discussion, because they know it’s all business and not personal. They aren’t afraid to actually have heated discussions. They aren’t afraid to participate in the debate.

Individually a team that has trust knows that any criticism or feedback is not personal. They believe that everyone on the team is concerned about the success of the company, not tearing each other down or trying to get ahead or make points, and the heated debate is taken as such.

How do you know if your team trusts each other?

If your conversations about an issue are one-sided with only one or two team members participating, you don’t trust each other. If people are afraid to confront an idea they don’t agree with, hang back and don’t participate at all or generally just agree with whatever is decided, you don’t trust each other. If people aren’t held accountable when something isn’t done, or a deadline is missed, you don’t trust each other.

I think I just described 98 percent of the teams out there in their weekly management meeting. Again, this has nothing to do with the kind of trust it takes to leave your wallet on your desk or your purse on the back of your chair, it’s the kind of trust that says, “We’re here to make this business successful and it might not be pretty, and that’s ok.”

Here’s a real example:

In a huge unnamed software company, one of the new team members seemed to be pretty quiet in discussions, typically only participating later in the conversation. He finally opened up in a very personal way and explained to the group that he was actually keeping up, but he did have a slight learning disability that caused him to be a little slower in retrieving the information he wanted to contribute. “Bear with me, I will always have something to say, eventually,” his exact words. There was a bit of squirming from other people in the room, this was a pretty vulnerable moment for this guy and it made a few people uncomfortable but for the most part everyone nodded, and life went on.

In this individual’s next performance review, this was actually written up as a negative, something like “struggles to keep up.” The guy was devastated. The competitive review process took another victim.

Now, what are the odds that this individual will ever trust a team again? What are the odds they will ever be willing to put something out there in a debate that might be risky?

What are the odds that they will ever risk exposing a weakness of any sort to this or any other team? Pretty low.

That’s why this dysfunction is so hard to overcome.

We as humans have a crazy desire for self-preservation. It is way easier to just hang back in a meeting and see where the conversation goes, or to just not say anything because you have seen what happens to other people that speak up. They may react like you are attacking them personally or think you don’t like them; you certainly don’t want to look stupid and they will just think you are trying to make them look bad. Much easier to just give your status and wait out the clock.

Looking out for #1 is deeply rooted in all of us. This is, I guess, good for prison but not for business teams. The team must get to the point where they all know it’s all about the business and not personal, and the conversation/discussion/debate is passionate and honest. Nobody is concerned about hurting someone’s feelings or looking stupid, because the team knows that’s not the case.

How to Establish Trust in a Team

How to Establish Trust in a Team

Establishing trust in a team takes courage, not time. The team members must be willing to make themselves vulnerable in a discussion without fearing anyone else is going to misunderstand them, and everyone on the team must be more concerned with the welfare of the company than someone’s feelings getting hurt.

Easier said than done. This is why leadership consultants make so much money. We humans just aren’t wired this way and changing behavior that is totally ingrained in us all our lives takes active energy and determination. It may well take someone coming in and coaching the team through this process, but without this basic level of team-trust, the foundation dysfunction, nothing else is going to work, as we will see.

Trust-Building Team Exercise

Here’s a trust-building exercise that you can use to get your team to start feeling some trust towards each other. The actual questions aren’t that important, what is important is that everyone gets to answer them. The questions need not be overly sensitive in nature; instead, they are just to get people to open up a little and expose a bit of their non-business side. So many times, we meet with and work with people every day and know nothing about their outside life. So many times, when we do get to know our team members on a more personal level, it leads to a new level of trust, or at least begins the trusting process.

Go around the table and have each member of the team answer a few questions about themselves. Start with the team leader to set the example, and don’t let anyone get away with minimalistic answers. Encourage questions and let the conversation flow a bit. Keep it light, but serious.

Questions to encourage trust-building conversations

Personal History: Four (or more) example questions everyone gets to answer about themselves:

  1. Where did you grow up?

  2. How many kids in your family?

  3. What was your most difficult or important challenge of your childhood?

  4. What’s your hobby?

The point of the questions is twofold.

First, each team member talking about these more personal things in their lives starts the team down the path of being more comfortable with each other.

Second, the team members begin to see each other on a more personal level as humans that have real stories and real experiences outside of the business.

Maybe one member collects stamps, another builds model trains. Ballroom dancing pops up more than you might think. Exposing these personal things starts to break down the normal human protect thyself behavior and gives everyone a better appreciation for the others on a more personal level. By encouraging questions (“I like line dancing too, where do you go?”), the team operates on a much more comfortable level. Probably for the first time with each other.

In Lencioni’s book, he has a number of great exercises like this that a team can go through to break through the lack of trust and get team members relating to each other in a much more honest way. Without developing this emotional trust in the team, nothing else I am going to discuss is going to work. Get the book. Do the work.

Ok, why is the trust element so critical? Because of the second dysfunction, which we discuss in part 2 of Why Teams Fail: Fear of Conflict.

In the meantime, start working on trusting each other.


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