In 2002, Robert Lencioni published The Five Dysfunctions of a Team in which he described a vicious circle of dysfunction that even the best of teams find themselves falling into and which, if not addressed appropriately, can lead to long-term subpar performance and the demise of any sense of collegiality or satisfaction among team members (Lencioni, 2002).  In this blog, I want to briefly describe Lencioni’s model of team dysfunction and then demonstrate how Holacracy can help to avoid being sucked into the vortex of team dysfunction.


The Cycle of Dysfunction

According to Lencioni the cycle of dysfunction begins with a failure or erosion of trust between one or more team members.  Instead of feeling a sense of confidence in fellow team members and that the team is free of reasons for its members to be self-protective or careful, team members feel vulnerable and “at risk.” Feeling vulnerable, they act to protect themselves so that when problems or issues arise in the team, instead of openly problem solving, they begin to try to fix blame on others before it can be fixed on them.

Feeling vulnerable in this way, leads to avoiding those kinds of sometimes contentious and challenging conversations that can lead to real breakthroughs and innovation. Team members begin to avoid positive conflict and replace it with shallow, unproductive discussion and a show of “false harmony (Lencioni, 2002).”

Since team members have not really engaged in meaningful discussion or wrestled with difficult issues, they have not developed a sense of deep personal commitment to the decisions made by the team.  Feeling vulnerable in the first place, and lacking commitment in the second, team members now seek to avoid and obscure their own accountabilities.  In the extreme, even though the team may have continued to meet and pursue its goals, no one is responsible for anything.

All of the foregoing leads to a lack of attention to results.  This lack of attention and focus on results leads to poor team performance.  Poor performance only adds to team members' sense of vulnerability and a vicious cycle of mistrust, self-protective behavior and poor results is refueled again and again.

Avoiding the Cycle of Dysfunction With Holacracy

Holacracy’s emphasis on role clarity and specific accountabilities, in addition to its structural and procedural processes, foster the development of effective teams and mitigate against Lencioni’s dysfunctional conundrum.

1. Lack or erosion of trust

Holacracy’s emphasis on role clarity and operational transparency helps to build a culture of openness and trust. Since nothing is “hidden,” there is no need to fear “hidden agendas.” 

In this type of transparent atmosphere individuals are more willing to:

  • Ask for help
  • Admit their own weakness or doubt
  • Accept questions and input about their areas of accountability
  • Give one another the benefit of the doubt before arriving at a negative conclusion
  • Take risks in offering feedback
  • Appreciate and tap into one another’s abilities
  • Apologize and accept apologies without hesitation

2. Fear of conflict

Holacracy provides a very clear and controlled system for offering objections to the ideas/proposals of others.  The clarity and openness of this objection procedure removes a great deal of the “apparent risk” and fear a person might feel in objecting to the views of another.  The Objection procedures build on the culture of trust enabled by Holacracy’s emphasis on role clarity and transparency.                       

As team encounters become more open to positive conflict and discussion, they also:

  • Extract and exploit the ideas of all team members
  • Solve real problems quickly
  • Minimize politics
  • Ensure that critical points are put on the table for discussion
  • Become lively, interesting

3.   Lack of commitment

Holacracy’s Integrative Decision Making process (IDM) ensures that all objections to a course of action are surfaced, discussed and resolved in a way that aligns all participants.  IDM actively seeks out and surfaces objections.  In this sense, IDM goes further than simply allowing input by actively involving and building the commitment all participants.

Because the IDM proactively surfaces impediments to commitment it helps teams:

  • Develop clarity around direction and priorities
  • Align in support of common objectives
  • Learn from mistakes
  • Move forward without hesitation
  • Adapt and changes direction without hesitation or guilt

4.  Avoidance of accountability

In Holacracy each role has clearly articulated accountabilities as well as  feedback mechanisms to determine progress in meeting those accountabilities.  Because Holacracy is grounded so firmly in having clear roles and accountabilities that are also completely transparent, it is extremely difficult to not know exactly which role is responsible for what and how effectively accountabilities are being met.

Very clear accountabilities:

  • Ensure that poor performers feel pressure to improve
  • Help to identify potential problems quickly by questioning one another’s approaches without hesitation
  • Build mutual respect among team members who are held to the same high standards
  • Avoids excessive bureaucracy around performance management and corrective action

5.  Inattention to results

Holacracy maintains a sharp focus on both organization and circle purpose and accountability metrics. All governance and tactical meetings emphasize and focus on both purpose and performance metrics.  In a Holacracy the daily drumbeat of purpose and metrics, mitigates any inclination to lose focus on results.

Regular attention to and focus on both purpose and metrics encourages:

  • The retention of achievement-oriented employees
  • The minimization of individualistic behavior
  • Becoming distracted from purpose focused activities
  • The attainment of personal goals through team success

Holacracy can help to avoid the sort of tailspin that can occur in teams in which trust between members has begun to erode.  However, it is not a team building intervention per se. Rather, it is a robust guide to leadership and organizational structure and practice designed for modern organizations that exist and compete in the midst of rapid and continual change.