The Five Dysfunctions of an Army Team
How to build a cohesive team using Patrick Lencioni’s Five Dysfunctions of a Team model
By Joe Kay, Principal Consultant at The Table Group and former Army Officer
When it comes to leadership and team performance training, the Army often leads the way. When I went through Sandhurst in 2001 it was clear to me that the behaviours I was being taught helped to build strong teams and effective leaders. But what was not clear to me was why specific practices and behaviours worked.
On reflection, I think the Army has perfected teaching what I will call ‘on-mission’ leadership. This is the leadership that is absolutely necessary whether your team are testing for COVID, on patrol in Mali, or in contact with an enemy force. When you are on a mission you need to lead with Command and Control.
Where I don’t think I was taught well at Sandhurst was ‘off-mission’ leadership. By that I mean everything when not actually on patrol etc. I may have been too tired and missed it, but I do not think I was ever given a practical set of instructions about how to build and lead a cohesive team when away from operations. There were some loose tips, but through my military career I mainly relied on intuition, never really knowing why what I was doing worked or not.
I am a believer in delivering the Bottom Line Up Front, so here it is: Reserve Command and Control for when you are leading a mission. In all other cases, including when planning for and debriefing from missions, lead your team using The Five Dysfunctions of a Team Model.
I had just left the Army when I was first given a copy of The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni. I remember thinking that if I had read this book earlier, it would have immediately helped explain how I could increase team performance as a leader away from the front line. Not only does this book explain what to do as a leader but, more critically for my style of learning, it explains why certain behaviours build cohesive teams.
The five dysfunctions model became central to the way I thought about how teams function away from the front line. I started consciously applying it, both to my own team and to the teams my business was serving.
After six years of using this model independently, I joined The Table Group, the company that Lencioni co-founded based on the models and lessons in his books. I now help executive teams apply The Table Group’s frameworks and models to make organisations healthier and more successful.
As a veteran, I was intrigued when I read an article outlining how The Table Group’s meeting framework can work in a military unit. Reflecting that the majority of The Table Group’s content would be useful for military teams, I reached out to the Commanding Officer of 2nd Battalion the Royal Anglian Regiment. Together we are experimenting with a broader application of Table Group models in a military context, bringing a greater focus on the organisation’s strategic aims, its internal clarity and the effectiveness of its decision-making and communication.
Before doing this, I had never seen a ‘militarised’ explanation of The Five Dysfunctions of a Team model. Having seen it at work in civilian business and industry, and now seeing its applicability to the military, I wish I had known about the model when I was a junior officer.
At the heart of the model are five behaviours that drive a more cohesive team focussed on collective results. These five behaviours are applicable when ‘off-mission’ at every level of the military. Applying the model is easy. Much of what the model says will be a reminder to any experienced military leader; it is the explanation of why the behaviours work that will help you understand how to better build and lead a team.
The Five Behaviours Model
The model outlines five behaviours (or dysfunctions to overcome in Pat’s original book) that are necessary for building a cohesive team. This concept of five behaviours may sound overly simple, but there is a nuance. If the leader or any team-members lack even one of these behaviours, the full benefits are lost and the team will not be truly cohesive. Like a house, the layers in the model must be built from the foundation up. Each behaviour needs to be in place to achieve the one above it fully.
This model should also be thought about from two perspectives. Because Army leaders always have two teams. The team we are on and the team we lead. Like this:
When I use this model with civilian executives, they often struggle with all five of the behaviours. While there are a lot of great people in business, some have been successful by being self-focused and behaving politically. This approach does not work over the long-term and is thankfully less common in the Army.
Behaviour One. Trust – The foundation of team performance
To Army leaders, this will sound obvious, but you must be able to trust everyone in your team before you can do anything of consequence with them.
Lt Col Meddings made the point in his recent Army Leader article that “In the British Army we take trust for granted. We do not often think about the structures we have in place that build trust, nor what it means when those structures break down.”
I would encourage you to read his article on the trust equation to understand trust in the broader Army. However, focusing back on trust within a formed team, I find it is helpful to think about two kinds of trust: Predictive and Vulnerability-based. While the predictive trust of knowing that someone will show up on time or do what they say is part of the equation. The more important type of trust is vulnerability-based. Being vulnerable with your team means being open about what is going on in your life, asking for help when you need it and saying sorry when you have got something wrong. In short, when you are not leading a mission, do not pretend to be a superhero, be human.
The core requirement of vulnerability is to go beyond a normal professional relationship and properly get to know each other. This type of relationship building can only happen when you have some down time.
In the business world, going beyond a professional relationship often means changing the way people have always operated. “I keep my professional and personal lives separate” is the mantra for many. But this kind of invulnerable behaviour does not work if you need to rely on people in the workplace.
Several times in my recent work, I have observed executives that had seriously ill children at home but said nothing to their colleagues. Their work was understandably suffering, but their team did not know to help. Getting these people to be vulnerable and confide in their team that they were dealing with a lot at home went a long way towards improving the overall team performance. Others stepped in once they knew the situation.
I do not think this sort of extreme example would happen in the Army. More usually in the Army we all know each other’s business. Before my flying course, I did a tour as a Platoon Commander with 1st Battalion, The Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment in Kosovo. My overall take away from my time with 1 PWRR was that it felt like a family.
In the PWRR, our Battalion 2IC had two rules for his junior Officers: Care about your soldiers and be fitter than them. There was no explanation of why it was important to care about our soldiers. But reflecting on it now, it worked because it increased the vulnerability-based trust.
I figured that if I was going to really care about my soldiers, I needed to get to know them. So having a brew with a young Private, we were sharing what was going on with our families at home. During the conversation, he told me that he had messed up the Direct Debit on his phone contract and the company were now aggressively chasing him for money. He was burying his head in the sand about it, but it was making him anxious. Him having the courage to be vulnerable and telling me about an issue and me fixing the situation cemented our relationship.
As the leader, you will get people to be vulnerable with you if you go first. Let them into your life and they will see you as a person. You will not get everything right, so when you do make a mistake, say sorry and move on. If you admit your mistakes, your soldiers are more likely to come to you earlier when they have made one. Modelling the behaviour of vulnerability-based trust creates a virtuous circle that sets you up for the remainder of the five behaviours.
When working with business teams, I think of my time with the PWRR as an example of a unit that truly embraced vulnerability. From one perspective, it is obvious why as my platoon all lived together. But the underlying reason is that we had time together with not much to do. In Kosovo, not being on patrol 24/7 and the inevitable on-the-bus-off-the-bus of being moved by the military gave us lots of time to talk to each other.
In business teams (and in military staff appointments), downtime is rare. Getting to know people requires a more scheduled approach. With business teams, we get executives to share some of their personal histories as part of our offsites. And the positive effect is immediate. However, it should not be necessary to get a consultant in to make this happen. As a leader, if you always prioritise getting to know your team at a deeper level through your career, then you will not go far wrong.
Behaviour Two. Conflict – The hardest behaviour to master
Conflict is an ambiguous word, so I will be specific about a definition for the rest of this article. Conflict is a team’s ability to engage in passionate unfiltered debate around ideas, issues and decisions. This type of conflict can only be achieved if vulnerability-based trust is present. It is also, only acceptable ‘off-mission’ and when there is time to engage in it.
After several tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, I understand that as soon as you leave your base the debate stops and Command and Control starts. However, when there is time, getting your team to help you develop your plans will make those plans better. It will also help your team buy-in to them.
I suspect this behaviour is the hardest layer of the model for military teams to perfect because of our ‘on-mission’ focus for Command and Control leadership training and misconceptions about rank.
The mistake I see military trained leaders make most, is that they over-use Command and Control. The best leaders leave this style of leadership for ‘on-mission’ or time critical situations and adopt the more collaborative approach of healthy conflict whenever they can.
Engaging in healthy conflict also takes the pressure off the leader to come up with the best answer on their own. When it comes to how to achieve a goal, everyone has an opinion. Good leaders are humble enough to admit that they do not know the answer to every question and also realise the importance of allowing their people to feel heard. Particularly when it comes to their ideas. As a leader, your role in planning switches from being the ideas person, to chairing the debate before making the final call.
The reason I think Army leaders will struggle with conflict the most, is that rank can make unfiltered debate harder. The teams I work with today head their organisations. But their job is similar to the role of a leader in the Army. Thinking about what to achieve in a team of peers, then directing the team they lead. Although executives do not wear rank on their chests, the hierarchy works in exactly the same way. The difference in the best business teams I observe, is that the leaders of these teams disregard hierarchy when debating ideas.
The concept that the best ideas can come from any rank does happen in some places in the military. As an Apache pilot, I supported both British and US Special Forces on a number of occasions and learned a lot from these experiences. One of the most interesting aspects of these missions was that none of the SF or their support teams would wear rank. During joint planning, I would not know if I was speaking to a Corporal or a Captain, so had to concentrate on the quality of the idea, rather than the rank of the person I was speaking with. In contrast, when working with regular forces, I would often see higher ranks shutting down debate too quickly. Reflecting afterwards, my conclusion is that we place too much emphasis on rank during initial planning in the green Army.
Ensuring rank does not skew an ideas session and eliciting what people really think in a debate is an important skill to develop as a leader. One tip I have picked up is that junior and new people need to be asked for their opinions before others get to speak. Think about it in an Army context; you will never hear an unbiased view from a new LCpl if you get them to speak about a potential plan immediately after their Sgt.
If you can try to forget rank when discussing ideas, then direct a debate about ideas, you will amplify the collective intelligence of your team. Healthy conflict is how you will come up with the best plans that your team buy-in to fully.
Behaviour Three. Commitment
The Army is not a democracy. As the leader, you retain the decision-making authority. But if your people have had the opportunity to weigh in with healthy conflict, they will buy-in to the final plan you choose. This is the case even if they initially thought there was a better way to achieve the objective. Having their voice heard in the debate about ideas is the main way to achieve their buy-in.
A good plan, violently executed now, is better than a perfect plan next week – General George S. Patton.
This quote gets to the real importance of commitment for me. It reminds me that team success does not come from how much we debate an idea, it comes from how well we execute on the final decision that comes from the discussion.
I use this quote with civilian teams who are prone to over-thinking or those who strive to achieve consensus for every decision. But this is not the major cause of a lack of commitment in teams.
Before they understand the importance of healthy conflict, most business teams operate in artificial harmony. On the surface they have nice conversations and spend their meetings updating each other about how busy they are. The real issues are kept for one-on-one conversations. This behaviour leads to a political environment and low commitment around important decisions.
There is a ‘Goldilocks zone’ to get real commitment on a decision. The team needs to spend enough time debating the topic together, but not over-talk everything to attempt to get to consensus. The leader needs to chair the discussion to ensure everyone has had their say and is bought in. Sometimes, this means that people on the team may need to “disagree and commit” to keep the broader organisation moving at pace.
To ensure commitment to a decision, I have found it effective to use some form of buy-in check or contract from individuals at the end of a meeting. This is to avoid someone remaining silent in a meeting, then sabotaging plans through inaction. Only to come back later and utter the immortal words “I knew that would not work”.
Typically, I get teams to do a quick check on agreement or buy-in using a 0-5 scale using one hand. We call this “Fist or Five” which always gets a smile, and it is a simple way to quickly find out what less vocal members are thinking. When leaders use this technique well, they get the lowest scoring members of the team to explain their thinking, which ensures everyone has had the chance to be heard before a decision is made.
Thinking about how clarity and buy-in applies in the final stages before going on a front-line mission, I believe that this is why rehearsals are so effective.
From 2006-9, a large part of my work was flying in, or commanding the helicopter element of air assault missions. After the orders, we would walk through the sequencing using tennis court sized models until we were confident that every crew was clear and bought in. Commitment in those situations was easier to achieve. Peoples’ lives were on the line. But the principle of allowing people time to get to clarity about what has been agreed and why is enduring in all situations.
It was away from the front line that I personally experienced a lack of commitment at times in my military career. When seemingly illogical orders came down the chain of command that would mess my soldiers about.
So how can we achieve full commitment for ourselves and our subordinates when we are in barracks?
When thinking about the team you are on, your buy-in to any plan is essential. You cannot sell orders to the team you lead if you are not bought-in. Reflecting on the times I have not been committed to a plan, it was because I was unclear about some aspect, had not had an opportunity to have a say in its development or did not understand the full reasons behind it.
As a leader, it helps to get yourself to a place where you can personally buy-in to plans coming down the chain of command before speaking about it with the team you lead. If you do not feel bought-in ask yourself what it would take for you to be fully committed and try to get that from your boss. If you want to understand more from a senior, a tip I have picked up recently is not to ambush them by asking “why?” You will probably get a better response by asking them to “explain their thinking to help you with your own development”. This is a subtle difference but does not trigger people in the same way as the why question.
Ultimately, you need to deliver your own orders from a place of total commitment to a higher plan. You can then nurture that total commitment from your subordinates. Everyone must be clear and bought in.
Behaviour 4. Accountability
Once a team is committed to a decision, team members must be willing to hold one another accountable for their behaviours. They must also remind each other when actions are counterproductive to the team. The best teams I work with practise this consistently. Their primary accountability is not to their boss, it is to their peers.
If you think about it, any team where individuals are highly motivated to win together is going to be much harder to compete against than a team where only the leader wants to win.
Accountability is the hardest level of the team model for civilian teams to master as their objectives are often personalised. Many of my clients have to hit some form of a pre-determined individual target to receive a bonus. They are not just thinking about team goals, they are thinking about their own ones. Pay incentives can drive self-orientated behaviour and create silos in organisations. When it is all about the individual pay-cheque, there is less incentive for peer-to-peer accountability.
Military objectives and incentives are different. Objectives are always team-based at the level above our own and the only thing close to an incentive scheme is based on recognition for self-sacrifice: Medals.
My hypothesis is, therefore, that peer-to-peer accountability at the front line comes naturally. On-mission, if some aspect of a plan is failing, peers will automatically adapt to try to achieve the higher intent. In the Army, we succeed or fail as a team.
The development of peer-to-peer accountability in off-mission situations is where I think military leaders have to dig deep for motivation. If someone isn’t performing in a team, peers have a role in helping them improve as this may save lives in the future. But how can we do this more effectively?
The answer to this question is better feedback delivered more often. The highest-performing teams I work with give each other immediate, specific feedback on what was good and what was bad after everything they do together. In their day to day work, peers in these teams are also quick to confront each other about problems in their respective areas of responsibility. They hold each other to high standards. They try and improve one another.
Like physical training, feedback is uncomfortable at the time, but feels good afterwards. One of my consulting mentors from The Table Group has instilled in me the importance of this practice. We give each other immediate ‘one good, one work on’ feedback after every session we deliver together. This could be four times a day.
What I have found is that if you build feedback into your daily routine, semi-annual reporting is not as hard. Both parties are used to the candour. To extend the exercise analogy; it is easier to run 5 km twice a week than do nothing for six months then try and run a marathon.
As a leader, set the example by regularly engaging in feedback with your soldiers. Then get them to give feedback to each other. It will be uncomfortable at first, but being a leader is rarely about your own comfort.
The discomfort continues because I also urge you to share this article with your peers, then agree to instigate mutual feedback with them. You may not think it is any of your business to do this. You may secretly see your colleagues as competition for future jobs. But if we were to face a comparable enemy in an actual war, you would want your peers to be as good as they possibly could be. So help them get better. Your life and the lives of your soldiers may depend on it.
Behaviour Five. Results
Collective results are the only results that matter. This is also where this model definitely crosses into on-mission relevance. If a Platoon fails to take its objective on the battlefield, individual soldiers or sections could not claim that they had a good attack.
When it comes to how much civilian teams pay attention to collective results over individual ones, there is a huge variety. Some clients would willingly sacrifice a result in their division or department for the good of the organisation. Some would happily point at their team-mates and say ‘your side of the ship is sinking’.
It can be hard in any organisation, be that civilian or military to keep focused on collective results. But that is what we must try to do. Reflecting on my Army career, sometimes I fell into the trap of being more focused on the success of the team I led over the team I was on. I misunderstood the meaning of looking down, not up; and I do not think I am alone in this mistake. Every leader in the Army is also a member of a higher-level team, even the Chief of The General Staff has a boss. Ultimately, the collective results of the higher-level team you are on are most important. This may mean sacrifice for you and the team you lead.
As a leader, it is always a tricky balance when it comes to results. You must inspire your people to work towards the collective result of the team you lead. Simultaneously you have to prioritise making the team you are on successful. If every leader does this, this is how a military operation succeeds. In other words, inspire your people to achieve your 1 Up’s Intent.
Finally, when it comes to your career. As you get more senior, keep reminding yourself that it is collective results that are the most important, not your individual career goals. Humans can sniff out self-orientation, and it degrades trust. Without trust, this model fails at the foundation.
Removing dysfunction and behaving as an effective team
Patrick Lencioni’s teamwork triangle includes five interlinked layers of behaviours that build on each other to enable the best possible collective results for a team. While it should be used to put together plans for missions, once on a mission of any sort, Army leaders should still use Command and Control.
The benefit of reserving Command and Control for missions will be an increase in team cohesion and performance in all situations. Your team will thrive away from the front line, but also when you are in contact and you do need your people to follow orders, they will trust you to make the right call.
As military leaders, we are all a part of two teams: The team we are on and the team we lead. The collective results of the team we are on are more important than those of the team we lead. Inspire your people to achieve your 1 Up’s Intent.
Collective results are most easily achieved if our teams have strong peer-to-peer accountability. So instil the practice of mutual feedback with your peers and subordinates in after action reviews and when you are training together.
Peer-to-peer accountability is only possible if our teams are fully committed to plans. So ensure clarity and buy-in before you act by questioning one another about the reasons a plan is being done the way it is.
The commitment required for violent execution of any plan is more easily accomplished when a team has had the chance to engage in healthy conflict. If time permits elicit opinions on how to achieve an objective from your soldiers.
Healthy conflict is only possible if you trust your soldiers, and they trust you. You should know them like you know your family. You need to be able to be vulnerable with each other.
A last tip is to share and explain this entire model with your peers and soldiers before surprising them with personal stories or unexpected feedback. The context of why you are doing these activities is essential information.
This brings me back to why. Understanding why is always important.
The why behind the leadership practices I was largely already using was the lightbulb moment for me when I first read The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. But after six years of using this model professionally, I am still uncovering additional depth within it. There are many books, TED Talks and other resources available that delve into each layer. So while this has been an introduction to the five behaviours necessary to build a cohesive team, continuing to learn about each behaviour and thinking about how to apply each in different situations will help you grow throughout your careers.
If you have found this article interesting and want to explore further, The Table Group has free resources on our website that can help explain how to build cohesive teams and run healthy organisations. There is also a podcast where Pat explores concepts in more depth and a YouTube Channel with lots of short explanations of our models. I hope these will be useful to you.
Finally, if you are currently in the military, thank you for your service. We are not good enough at saying this in Britain and I am grateful for all of you.
If you want to read another lesson from Patrick Lencioni’s book, read our ever-popular Nail Your Meetings! article. Nail your meetings, not your team’s will to live.