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Build trust and create a cohesive workforce: Overcoming the 5 characteristics of dysfunctional teams


We’ve all encountered dysfunctional teams before. They’re a source of office gossip, they miss opportunities for innovation, and the quality of their work falls over time.

When you spot dysfunctional teams in the workplace, trying to blame a person is tempting. After all, retraining or replacing someone is easier than transforming a team dynamic.

For example, you might reason that a dysfunctional team is a sign of the manager’s poor leadership skills.

However, dysfunctional teams are not the fault of one person. In fact, even if a bad manager is the root of team issues, this cannot escalate to create a dysfunctional team without systemic failures playing a role.

In this blog, we tell you everything you need to know about how to fix a dysfunctional team, including the 5 characteristics of a dysfunctional team to look out for.

What is a dysfunctional team?

A dysfunctional team is one in which team members struggle to meet their overall goals due to interpersonal conflict and procedural issues within the team structure. 

There are near-infinite ways this can manifest, from a dictatorial leadership style to an unwillingness among employees to speak up when they foresee issues.

Many of the signs of a dysfunctional team stem from five key issues identified by consultant Patrick Lencioni in his bestselling book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable, first published in 2002. 

We will be using Lencioni’s model to structure our discussion of dysfunctional teams. But first: What are the 5 characteristics of a dysfunctional team? 

The 5 dysfunctions of a team and the warning signs to look for in dysfunctional teams

The five dysfunctions of a team are: 

  1. Absence of trust

  2. Fear of conflict

  3. Lack of commitment

  4. Avoidance of accountability

  5. Inattention to results

5 dysfunctions of a team and the warning signs graphic

Here’s what each of these characteristics means and how to spot them in your own teams.

The 5 dysfunctions of a team: Summary

Familiar with Lencioni’s theory and want a quick refresher? Or in a rush? We’ve got you covered – here’s a brief summary.

5 dysfunctions of a team


Absence of trust

Employees are unwilling to be vulnerable with their teammates

Fear of conflict

Teams prioritize “artificial harmony” over productive conflict

Lack of commitment

Employees aren’t engaged enough to follow through on decisions 

Avoidance of accountability

Employees fail to hold themselves and each other to account, letting standards slip

Inattention to results

Team members focus on their own goals instead of team objectives

1. Absence of trust 

An absence of trust is the most severe form of team dysfunction and underpins the remaining four root causes. 

It refers to team members being unwilling to be vulnerable in the group, usually meaning they are afraid to:

  • Make mistakes in front of their teammates

  • Ask for help 

  • Express concerns or mere opinions

This might be because they fear being judged harshly, reprimanded, ridiculed, or simply ignored.

It doesn’t just apply to team members but to team leaders, too. Leaders might be afraid to show weakness by asking questions or giving employees autonomy over their work.

All of these issues lead to less collaboration, innovation, and efficiency.

Signs your team might be suffering from an absence of trust

More specific signs that you’re dealing with an absence of trust in your team include:

  • Micromanagement

  • Poor information sharing

  • Risk aversion

  • Employee burnout from team members not asking for help 

  • Unequal sharing of tasks 

2. Fear of conflict

Too much conflict can be the marker of a toxic workplace. However, healthy disagreement is important in teams because it challenges the status quo and enables innovative ideas to develop.

Fear of conflict causes teams to avoid healthy conflict in favor of “artificial harmony,” where everything appears calm on the surface, but grudges and resentment hide beneath. 

This often results in bad ideas persisting instead of being called out and improved.

Fear of conflict stems from a lack of trust because employees don’t trust each other to be respectful during disagreements or to move on and work peacefully together once the issue is resolved.

Signs your team might be suffering from a fear of conflict

A fear of conflict could be lurking if:

  • Team members are reluctant to make suggestions, even when they foresee an issue

  • Employees don’t raise issues directly with one another, instead asking the manager to intervene 

  • Team members communicate through impersonal channels when a call or face-to-face meeting might be more appropriate

  • There’s universal agreement in meetings – but widespread disagreement afterward 

3. Lack of commitment 

Related to employee engagement, a lack of commitment occurs when team members are not invested in their work. 

This prevents them from sticking to their decisions and following through on plans.

Employees might be apathetic about the outcomes of their projects, procrastinate tasks, or openly express skepticism about the importance of their work. 

Again, this is connected to an absence of trust in leadership or the organization's overall goals. 

It also wreaks havoc for your bottom line: Organizations scoring in the top quartile for employee engagement achieve profits 23% higher than those in the bottom quartile.

Signs your team might be suffering from a lack of commitment

Your employees might have a lack of commitment if they:

  • Repeatedly put off decisions as “not urgent” or “requiring more data” without making the effort to gather that information

  • Don’t take initiative to finish projects and tasks 

  • Don’t put in the same effort as their teammates 

  • Procrastinate key decisions or communications

4. Avoidance of accountability 

Avoidance of accountability isn’t exclusively about team members trying to avoid responsibility for their own work. It’s also about failing to hold each other to account.

They might let missed deadlines or counterproductive behavior slide, perhaps out of a desire to avoid conflict, and thereby reduce standards for the whole team.

This has downstream effects on workplace negativity

When employees look around and see their team members are not engaged in their work and don’t care if they do a good job, they often feel less motivated to invest in their own work. 

Signs your team might be suffering from an avoidance of accountability

You can spot avoidance of accountability on your own team if you notice that employees:

  • Over-rely on the team leader to call out mistakes or suggest changes to their plans

  • Allow their own and others’ work to fail instead of suggesting solutions when they spot an issue

  • Gossip about bad processes or other employees instead of proposing changes that could improve them

5. Inattention to team results 

Inattention to team results means that employees prioritize their own interests over the team’s goals.

This kind of individualism is the natural enemy of collaboration and innovation and signals a lack of mutual respect among team members.

It doesn’t only apply to employees. A leader might display inattention to team results by focusing solely on tasks that impact their performance review or end-of-year bonus, neglecting the people management aspect of their job.

Signs your team might be suffering from inattention to team results

Your team is suffering from an inattention to team results if its members:

  • Focus only on meeting their own performance goals 

  • Refuse to help each other even when they have time to spare

  • Prioritize enjoyable tasks instead of ones that would advance the team’s goals

How to mend dysfunctional teams: 15 best practices for creating a cohesive workplace

Identifying the five dysfunctions of a team in your workforce is only the first step. Now, you have to fix them.

We’ve put together a list of best practices for fixing a dysfunctional team, broken down by the dysfunction they target.

15 best practices for fixing a dysfunctional team: Summary

If you already know which dysfunction of a team you’re targeting and want to get started straight away, here’s a quick explainer.

Sign of a dysfunctional team

Best practices to overcome it

Example actions for fixing a dysfunctional team 

1. Absence of trust

Build a cohesive culture

Invite new joiners to social events, whether online or in-person

Encourage leaders to role model vulnerability and authenticity

Encourage executives to openly ask employees for help and advice

Emphasize the connection to your overall mission

Spotlight employees’ impact on the company mission when giving feedback on their work

Discourage gossip

Provide a definition of negative gossip

Avoid micromanagement

Use 360 degree feedback to identify micromanagers

2. Fear of conflict

Build a sense of psychological safety at work

Reduce bias in your hiring with skills-based hiring

Promote healthy conflict

Identify and celebrate areas of necessary conflict in each team

3. Lack of commitment

Use talent assessments to hire motivated employees

Use our Motivation test to find candidates who share your company's vision

Create career development plans for employees – and align them with their work

Show how working with their team contributes to employees’ overall career growth

Provide mentoring opportunities for employees

Use reverse mentoring for senior staff

4. Avoidance of accountability

Use a team charter

Outline every individual’s role clearly and refer to it at the start of new projects

Create clear milestones and processes for feedback

Use a regular anonymous survey to get general feedback

5. Inattention to team results 

Outline clear performance indicators for employees

Include factors that relate directly to teamwork, like a collaboration score

Celebrate milestones, not simply completed projects

Buy a team coffee and donuts in the office when a milestone is passed

Use employee incentives to reward team performance, not just individuals

Reward successful teams with a paid-for team bonding event 

How to overcome an absence of trust

The absence of trust in the workplace is a surprisingly common problem: One BetterUp study showed that 38% of employees didn’t trust their coworkers.

The same study showed that employers who focused on building trust and employee connection: 

  • Upped goal attainment (34%)

  • Boosted wellbeing (36%)

  • Increased positive work relationships (59%)

  • Improved professional growth (92%)

Positive effects. Of building trust and connection between employees

Here’s how to do it.

1. Build a cohesive culture

Trust needs to be deeply embedded into your company culture. Research shows that a culture of trust was the most significant factor for companies in increasing knowledge-sharing among employees, quick responses to change, and innovation.

To build a trusting, cohesive culture, start by creating a systematic approach to employee experience. When a new employee joins: 

  • Arrange get-to-know-you calls with relevant colleagues

  • Invite new joiners to social events, whether online or in-person 

  • Ask them to create introduction videos so that their coworkers learn about them

This gives a strong first impression that you are a trustworthy and nurturing employer.

2. Encourage leaders to role model vulnerability and authenticity

Another way to overcome an absence of trust in the workplace is for leaders to role model vulnerability and authenticity in their interactions with colleagues by: 

  • Openly asking employees for their help and advice 

  • Discussing decisions with teams before a final call is made

  • Flagging personal issues that might be impacting their own work

Displaying authenticity and vulnerability is a key leadership skill. Studies show that authentic leadership significantly impacts employees’ job performance because employees take their lead from the values shown by their supervisors.[1]

When leaders demonstrate honesty and commitment to their company mission, employees are more likely to accept them as role models and use their example as motivation.

3. Emphasize the connection to your overall mission

Employees’ lack of trust frequently extends beyond their immediate team to the overall management of their organization. 

This is often because employers fail to uphold their corporate purpose – for example, when organizations claim they are committed to corporate social justice but still use unfair hiring practices.

If leaders’ intentions can’t be trusted, this sours employees’ investment in the company mission, even if it’s a cause they care about. 

Although 82% of employees believe their company’s corporate purpose is important, barely 42% believe it actually drives leaders’ decision-making.

To combat this cynicism and lack of buy-in, underline the ways your organizational structure aligns with its values. 

You should also find concrete examples of the impact your teams’ work has on your mission and accentuate these when giving praise and feedback.

For example, you could use positive customer reviews to spotlight successful initiatives in your customer services team.

4. Discourage gossip

Nothing breaks trust faster than finding out your coworkers have been whispering about you behind your back. Negative workplace gossip has a proven negative impact on employee enthusiasm and must be eliminated to promote trust in dysfunctional teams.[2]

Especially if you’ve already noticed a negative, gossipy culture in your team, create a definition of malicious gossip for your employees to evaluate their behavior. Include questions like: 

  1. Is the subject of your conversation present?

  2. Are your statements about them neutral or loaded?

  3. Is there a factual basis for what you’re saying?

  4. Would you be comfortable with your manager overhearing this conversation?

5. Avoid micromanagement

For managers, an important part of role modeling trust within your team is avoiding micromanagement.

Although it’s tempting to step in and take over employees’ work or to demand to oversee their communications, this can be damaging to team members’ self-esteem, skill growth, and trust in your leadership.

Remember: The goal is to create an environment where employees can ask for help when they need it and work out solutions for themselves. 

Instead of forcibly stepping in, experts recommend giving workers the “space to struggle,” offering support and guidance when they ask for it.[3]

Use 360 degree feedback to identify micromanagers and offer training to alter their approach.

How to overcome a fear of conflict

By following the previous steps to rebuild trust within your team, you’ve already laid the groundwork for overcoming a fear of conflict.

Now that we’ve cleared the bad habits, it’s time to replace them with more positive systems.

6. Build a sense of psychological safety at work

The term “psychological safety” refers to employees feeling free to speak their minds without fear of negative consequences. 

This might be voicing an opinion without fearing ridicule or raising an issue without worrying about backlash.

There are many ways to promote psychological safety at work, some of which we’ve already touched on above – for example, leaders role modeling empathy.

You should also take steps to prioritize inclusiveness in your workplace to show your respect for employees. Try:

  • Reducing bias in your hiring with skills-based hiring methods

  • Encouraging employees to include their pronouns in their email sign-off and respect their colleagues’ identities

  • Implementing a flexible working policy to cater to individuals’ needs

7. Promote healthy conflict

Next, promote open and healthy conflict by showing employees that conflict is inevitable and surprisingly necessary in their roles.

In a team meeting, map the unique value of each role and what would be missing if they weren’t there. Then, point out the tensions that should exist between different roles.[4]

For example, a sales rep might want more marketing budget to build their funnel, which means a marketing rep needs to manage this alongside their six other campaigns. Identifying this as a site of necessary conflict – and compromise – can help reduce fear of conflict.

As an added safety net, train staff in nonviolent communication for when discussions get tense.

How to overcome a lack of commitment

The next problem to tackle is employees’ lack of commitment to the team’s goals and low engagement in the outcomes of their work.

Studies show that there are many factors that influence employee engagement, chiefly trust in leaders and organizational culture.

Here are some ways you can overcome a lack of commitment on a dysfunctional team.

8. Use talent assessments to hire motivated employees

To build a team that excels, you need to hire people with the right attitudes and values. 

Our online Motivation test can help you identify candidates who share your organization’s vision and values. Applying it to current employees can also identify folks whose motivations differ from your company's mission.

In addition to helping you identify team players, hiring with pre-interview assessments is also more efficient and less biased. 

More than 90% of organizations saw a reduction in time-to-hire after switching to skills-based hiring.

In a study of more than 2,000 successful job applications, the number of women hired into senior roles increased by nearly 70% when skills-based hiring processes were used.

9. Create career development plans for employees – and align them with their work

As demonstrated in the graph above, offering employees opportunities for career development is an important way to build trust and boost engagement.

When chief executive officers introduced upskilling programs, 93% saw improvements in productivity, talent acquisition and retention, and resilience in their workforce.

One way to do this is by crafting professional development plans for every employee when they join your organization.

Ensure that they understand how the work they do with their team contributes to their overall career growth and highlight training opportunities that can boost productivity while progressing them further in their career.

10. Provide mentoring opportunities for employees

Investing in mentoring is another way to encourage commitment to your team’s goals – and secure that much-needed follow-through on employees’ decisions.

Not only do mentoring schemes nurture diversity in your organization, but they are also an opportunity to underscore the corporate purpose of your employees’ work. This is because senior leaders can pass on their knowledge and passion for their role to team members.

This doesn’t have to stop with junior team members, either. Team leaders can benefit from “reverse mentoring,” helping them better understand their teams’ needs.

This stronger connection to their work encourages employees to make decisions they invest in and stick to, overcoming a lack of commitment.

How to overcome an avoidance of accountability

In his book, Patrick Lencioni wrote, “The best kind of accountability on a team is peer-to-peer.” Being monitored by colleagues is more effective for promoting employee accountability than waiting for managers to intervene.

Here’s how you can nurture this behavior in your teams.

11. Use a team charter

We’ve already seen the benefits of outlining individuals’ roles and responsibilities in a team for overcoming fear of conflict, but this tactic can also improve accountability.

Employees with clarity about their role are 53% more efficient, and their performance increases by 25%.

When employees understand not only their own roles but also their colleagues’ – and crucially, the overlap between them – it makes it easier to encourage one another and check in with their progress.

To do this, create an accessible team charter defining the team’s purpose, key outcomes, and every individual’s role. Revisit the team charter in meetings and update it when new projects shift the balance.

12. Create clear milestones and processes for feedback

Create a protocol for raising issues and delivering feedback. This might be formal (such as a regular anonymous survey) or informal (such as a sample script for approaching a colleague about an issue).

This is especially important for leaders to avoid the “HiPPO effect,” otherwise known as the “Highest Paid Person’s Opinion” dominating the conversation.[5]

Research has shown that junior managers’ projects were often more successful than senior managers’ because they were more likely to receive and accept critique and build stronger plans based on their employees’ input.[6]

Creating a strong feedback process also gives you access to employee voice which could improve your overall culture.

How to overcome inattention to team results

Finally, it’s time to tackle inattention to team results. This kind of individualism is the antithesis of teamwork and can erode the progress you’ve made through the previous 12 steps.

Here’s how to encourage all employees to invest their energies in meeting team goals and not merely individual ones.

13. Outline clear performance indicators for employees

We’ve already seen the importance of role clarity in promoting collaboration – and yet, fewer employees had role clarity in 2022 than in 2021.[7]

Particularly if an individual is part of multiple cross-functional teams, it’s important to outline their baseline responsibilities within each team so that they can meet expectations and manage their own performance

Set clear performance indicators for each employee, including some factors that directly relate to teamwork, such as a collaboration score given by the rest of the team.

The need for performance monitoring also applies to training. Use skills tests to benchmark workers’ progress through training to ensure that their engagement doesn’t drop off and that they secure the desired improvements.

14. Celebrate milestones, not just completed projects

Effective rewards programs ensure stability for your teams. 

When employees are recognized at work, they are unlikely to look for a new job in the next three to six months.[8]

One way to design an effective rewards system for teams is to make sure that you celebrate the small wins together, not simply the big ones.

For example, throw a pizza party if a team reaches their revenue goal for the quarter or offer donuts and coffee in the office to encourage in-person attendance at team meetings.

15. Use employee incentives to reward team performance, not just individuals

Finally, design employee incentive programs that reward healthy team performance, not solely individual performance.

This might be offering a bonus for meeting team goals, extra paid vacation days, or a fun team social event.

You could also consider using the rewards themselves to further cement team unity. For example, some organizations offer team vacations paid for by the company if objectives are met.

You could also organize a team quiz social that encourages employees to learn about each other.

Transform dysfunctional teams by hiring and nurturing a cohesive workforce 

In this blog, we’ve covered how to overcome the 5 characteristics of a dysfunctional team:

  1. Absence of trust

  2. Fear of conflict

  3. Lack of commitment

  4. Avoidance of accountability

  5. Inattention to results

As we’ve seen, there’s no single fix. 

The solution is using skills-based methods to build a high-performing team that is united on values and diverse in their skills; you also need to focus on bonding and motivating your teams.

To find out more about encouraging group bonding virtually, read our blog about 5 remote team-building activities for virtual teams.

To learn about the benefits and means of building employees’ skills, read our guide to upskilling employees.

To fix a team that’s trapped in a toxic cycle, check out our employer guide to fixing a “churn and burn” team.

To hire candidates who share your vision for your organization, use our Motivation test to hire the best.


  1. Ayca, Betul. (2023). “Association between Authentic Leadership and Job Performance—The Moderating Roles of Trust in the Supervisor and Trust in the Organization: The Example of Türkiye”. Sustainability. Retrieved September 18, 2023. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/370020488

  2. Yan, Liang; Zhang, Qian. (2021). “The Study on the Influence of Workplace Gossip on Employees' Work Enthusiasm”. E3S Web of Conferences. Retrieved September 18, 2023.https://www.researchgate.net/publication/351390587_The_Study_on_the_Influence_of_Workplace_Gossip_on_Employees

  3. Thompson, Kelli. (July 6, 2023). “To Help Your Team Grow, Give Them Space to Struggle”. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved September 18, 2023. https://hbr.org/2023/07/to-help-your-team-grow-give-them-space-to-struggle

  4. Davey, Liane. (March 14, 2019). “An Exercise to Help Your Team Feel More Comfortable with Conflict”. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved September 18, 2023. https://hbr.org/2019/03/an-exercise-to-help-your-team-feel-more-comfortable-with-conflict

  5. Pearson, Tammy. (May 7, 2022). “The HiPPO Effect on Customers and Product Teams”. Atomic Object. Retrieved September 21, 2023. https://spin.atomicobject.com/2022/05/07/the-hippo-effect/

  6. Szatmari, Balazs. (December 16, 2016). “We are (all) the champions: The effect of status in the implementation of innovations”. Erasmus Research Institute of Management. Retrieved September 18, 2023. https://repub.eur.nl/pub/94633/

  7. Mehrotra, Priyanka; Sherman Garr, Stacia. (March 27, 2023). “Organizational Support for Employees Is Down. Here's What You Can Do About It”. Reworked. Retrieved September 18, 2023. https://www.reworked.co/employee-experience/organizational-support-for-employees-is-down-heres-what-you-can-do-about-it/

  8. Des Georges, Colette. (2019). “Can employee recognition help you keep them longer?”. SurveyMonkey. Retrieved September 18, 2023. https://www.surveymonkey.com/curiosity/employee-recognition-and-retention/


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