Author’s note: I’ve decided to occasionally veer away from school discipline to write about organizational behavior, as that’s been the bulk of my reading lately. When I do, I’ll tag those posts with this note.
If you were a business major, you probably read Patrick Lencioni’s The Five Dysfunctions of a Team in freshman year. I studied American literature, so I’m just getting to it in my thirties! But I’m glad I did, as there’s a lot for school leaders and teachers alike to learn.
Lencioni devotes the first 80% of the book to a leadership “fable” that exhibits his major concepts. Then in the last 20% he explains them.
I personally like this style. The “fable” is cheesy and certainly not compelling as literature, but it serves its purpose, and the actual concepts are boiled down concisely at the end, unlike many leadership books that take 20 pages of great content and intersperse them among 200 pages of filler.
I won’t recap the fable here, but I will explore what the five dysfunctions are and the implications I see for teachers and school leaders, starting with Dysfunction 1 in this post.
Dysfunction 1: Absence of Trust
The first thing you notice about the five dysfunctions is that they’re simple to the point of being almost trite or cliche. Yes, we all know that trust is preferable to the absence of trust. The hard part is the implications and application.
Trust in this context is not about being able to give sensitive information without it being repeated. Trusting an individual means knowing that individual will act with your best interests in mind. That doesn’t mean he will act exclusively with your exclusive interests in mind; that would be unreasonable. But that he will make a good-faith effort.
The presence of trust allows for something equally important: vulnerability. When we trust others, we can be vulnerable around them. We are willing to share ideas that might be out of the mainstream, or to divulge unpopular opinions. Fresh new ideas and unpopular opinions are, of course, crucial to the health and output of a team.
When individuals aren’t willing to share new ideas, the team does what it’s always done.
When individuals aren’t willing to divulge unpopular opinions, the team does something its members know isn’t ideal because they feared the repercussions of speaking out.
What might this look like on teacher teams? Here’s a brief illustration:
Teacher planning meeting, members don’t trust each other:
Teacher 1: We have to finalize the plan for the poetry unit.
Teacher 2: Last year we had students write their final essay on “The Road Not Taken,” that seemed to work fine. I really don’t see a reason to change that, especially when we already have so many other things on our plates.
Teacher 3, thinking: It really didn’t go fine. The kids were so bored and there was no choice. I know it sounds crazy, but I was really hoping kids could write their own poems and then analyze their own poems in their essay. I know it’s different, but I think engagement would be so much higher. I know we have a lot on our plates, but shouldn’t planning a great unit be our first priority?
Teacher 3, speaking: Okay … I guess we could do that.
Teacher 2, thinking: What does she mean, I guess? I hate it when she is passive aggressive like that.
Here, the absence of trust manifested itself in a number of ways. First, teacher 3 was afraid to share her idea. Her idea was new and different, and the other team members might have reacted negatively. Because she didn’t trust that they had her best interest in mind, she withheld it.
But not only was teacher 3 afraid to share her idea, she was also afraid to criticize teacher 2’s idea, fearful of how teacher 2 might respond to the criticism (probably both because she doesn’t trust teacher 2 and because eacher 2 doesn’t trust her, and each has good reason for it).
It’s a pretty direct line between a team’s lack of trust among its members and a bad outcome for kids (in this case, a boring assignment). And it ties directly into the second dysfunction (fear of conflict), which I’ll write about in the next post I do on this book.
The question that lingers for me is how to restore trust to a team that’s lost it, and how to build it for a new team or a team that’s never had it.