Photo by Joshua Hoehne on Unsplash

Photo by Joshua Hoehne on Unsplash

My students are my best teachers. In a recent High-Performance Team Building™ class, my students asked some great questions. I had to pause, ponder, learn something new, and get back to them after class. Here’s one of those great questions, along with my response.

In the book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, the author says that “Trust” is the most important skill for the team to work on. But Richard, you say Psychological Safety and Team Emotional Intelligence are the most important skills. What do you think about Trust?

My student was referring to Patrick Lencioni’s book, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable, which is a brilliant story-based learning tool. (Check out the graphic novel version—I actually like it better than the original.). Whatever your learning style, you’ll find this book engaging. It contains memorable insights into the way people work together—or fail to work together—in business.

However, the book has been criticized by some, including Gordon Curphy and Robert Hogan. Curphy and Hogan are organizational psychologists and leadership researchers. They criticize The Five Dysfunctions for its lack of evidence-based validity and rigor in their book The Rocket Model: Practical Advice for Building High Performing Teams.

Trust, or its absence, is the first dysfunction addressed in The Five Dysfunctions. It’s obvious that if we don’t trust each other, we won’t work well together. We won’t make ourselves vulnerable to each other, and we won’t grow our team emotional intelligence—two more important traits of great teams. Lencioni suggests activities to help teams build higher trust, including a series of personal disclosures. Curphy and Hogan point out that there is little empirical evidence for “sharing personal disclosures” as an isolated technique, and that it’s the kind of activity which would need to be handled with great care if the team were in any way dysfunctional or mistrusting.

Let’s keep in mind that The Five Dysfunctions is a work of fiction—its subtitle, after all, is A Leadership Fable. The team’s personal disclosures build excellent dramatic tension within the story. But according to Katzenbach and Smith in The Wisdom of Teams: Creating the High-Performance Organization, the only effective method for teams to build trust and cohesion is to do real work together. A stand-alone “team building” activity outside the real work, like a Myers-Briggs Type Indicator activity, is not the “real work.” It might help build mutual awareness, but it won’t instantly create mutual trust. [paraphrased from the Criticism section in the Wikepedia article on The Five Dysfunctions]

Trust takes time and is built in increments of behavior and outcome, none of which is great for a fictional narrative trying to illustrate a point rapidly. Trust is also fragile, and it can be damaged rapidly, which is one reason that anyone who feels insecure about trust in their team is likely to resist any activity that forces them to make disclosures that they’re not ready for. When these exercises are performed in an unengaged, arms-length way, they can even make things worse. For example, if it seems like one team member is just “checking the box” by being present in the workshop, but isn’t sharing anything particularly meaningful, another team member who is disclosing something deeply personal now feels vulnerable to a point of being naked—the trust level is worse than before.

Another important point to consider is that in the story, the company leaders don’t identify the leadership team as their primary team. This insight is critical. Each of them manages a specialty skill area, like Marketing or R&D. They identify with their specialty area as their primary team, rather than with the leadership team as their primary team. But to foster the organization’s best performance, the leadership team is where the trust needs to begin. In Lean terms, we would say the leaders are sub-optimizing: they seek to optimize their specialty area instead of optimizing the whole organization.

To be most effective, they should adjust their definition of “primary team.” They should identify with the leadership team as their primary team; and they should think of their specialty areas—the group of people they manage—as the people who execute specialty skills on their behalf, for the benefit of the leadership team and of the organization as a whole. For example, the marketing leader’s primary team is the leadership team. She aligns with the rest of the leaders and offers to do marketing-related work for the leadership team. She executes the work using her marketing organization. The marketing organization is her execution team, doing the work for her, in the service of her primary team: the company leaders.

It’s a common problem for senior leadership in many organizations. By nature, the leadership team is composed of experts from each specialty department, who each see themselves as competing for budget and other resources, and who each have different priorities when they make decisions. They spend most of their time in their specialty subteam, and thus they build stronger personal relationships there. They each come to the boardroom on behalf of “their” team. It takes a deliberate shift to start to see the C-suite or senior management team as the primary unit in which they act.

The Core Protocols are an antidote to the “five dysfunctions” problem. When the leaders come together as a cohesive primary team, they perform better—as individuals, as a leadership team, as specialty area subteams, and as a whole organization.  Everything in the Core Protocols starts with action—behavior—bringing teammates together in a safe way. Deliberately adopting these practices at the top is a great way to begin cascading these behaviors throughout the entire organization.

Once you optimize the leadership team, the rest of the teams follow their example. The leaders model the optimal behaviors in all their interactions. This is what fixes trust issues at every level: everyone participates consensually and transparently, safe to be creative and effective within guide rails that shape the way they interact with each other.

The Core Protocols have a strong relationship to the science and research on great teams. We know from the science and research that great teams have skills for freedom and autonomy, self-awareness, connecting with each other, productivity, and error handling. The skills are universally applicable, in whatever industry the organization is engaged with, and in whatever operational area each team member is responsible for.

Above all, the Core Protocols are a way to transform a leadership team into a really great team. The steps we go through in class help individuals form together as a strong primary team and give them the skills to maintain that strength together.