Psychological Safety: Which of these 5 Dysfunctions are present in your team?


Psychological safety stands as the bedrock upon which successful collaboration is built. It's the assurance that one can speak up, take risks, and be vulnerable without fear of negative consequences to self-image, status, or career. 

When psychological safety is absent, teams may fall prey to the five dysfunctions that Patrick Lencioni famously outlined: 

  1. Absence of trust
  2. Fear of conflict
  3. Lack of commitment
  4. Avoidance of accountability
  5. Inattention to results.

Let's explore these dysfunctions, the questions leaders can ask to identify them, and the signs of a healthy, psychologically safe team.

1. Absence of Trust

Trust forms the foundation of teamwork, enabling members to be vulnerable and honest with each other.

Signs it’s present – team members…

  • openly admit mistakes
  • share their thoughts and feelings without fear of judgment
  • frequent and open discussions about failures and learnings
  • ask for and offering help readily
  • share personal stories and experiences

Signs it’s absent – team members…

  • hide their weaknesses
  • avoid asking for help
  • are reluctant to provide honest feedback
  • give minimal personal disclosure leading to superficial relationships

Identifying Questions:

  • Do team members openly share their weaknesses and mistakes with each other?
  • Are team members reluctant to ask for help or provide constructive feedback?

What to Look For:

A team grounded in trust exhibits vulnerability without fear of judgment.

Members talk about mistakes as learning opportunities and openly ask for help. For instance, a project team might regularly hold "retrospective" meetings where members discuss what went wrong in a project phase and how they can improve, without pointing fingers.

2. Fear of Conflict

Constructive conflict around ideas is essential for innovation and avoiding groupthink, fostering a culture where diverse opinions are valued.

  • Presence Signs: Engaged and passionate debates on project directions or strategies; active solicitation of differing opinions; resolution of conflicts with thoughtful discussion; clear distinction between professional and personal disagreements.
  • Absence Signs: Avoidance of sensitive topics; preference for unanimous decisions without thorough examination; passive-aggressive communication; surfacing of unresolved issues in indirect ways.

Identifying Questions:

  • Do discussions within the team avoid touching on contentious issues?
  • Is there a tendency to settle on premature consensus just to avoid disagreement?

What to Look For:

Healthy conflict is about ideas, not personalities. Teams that have overcome the fear of conflict engage in passionate debates about ideas, knowing that these discussions lead to better decisions. A marketing team, for example, might have a heated debate over the best strategy for a product launch, with each member contributing different perspectives, ultimately leading to a well-rounded and robust strategy.

3. Lack of Commitment

Commitment to team decisions and plans is crucial for moving forward with confidence and clarity, even in the face of initial disagreement.

  • Presence Signs: Clear articulation of team goals and roles; public endorsement of decisions regardless of personal stance; proactive approach to problem-solving; adherence to deadlines and commitments.
  • Absence Signs: Vagueness in roles and objectives; frequent revisiting of decisions; missed deadlines; lack of initiative or enthusiasm for projects; spreading of uncertainty and indecision.

Identifying Questions:

  • Are team decisions frequently revisited because members don't buy into them?
  • Do team members show a lack of enthusiasm or ambiguity about direction and priorities?

What to Look For:

Commitment comes from clarity and buy-in. Even if not everyone agrees initially, once a decision is made, the team moves forward together. A sign of a committed team is the setting of clear goals and deadlines, which everyone respects and adheres to, such as a development team committing to a product release date and working collectively to meet it, regardless of initial disagreements on the timeline.

4. Avoidance of Accountability

A culture of accountability ensures that team members hold each other to high standards, crucial for achieving excellence and continuous improvement.

  • Presence Signs: Regular feedback sessions focused on improvement; open discussions about performance and behavior; willingness to address difficult issues directly; collective ownership of successes and failures.
  • Absence Signs: Ignoring or excusing underperformance; reluctance to give constructive criticism; blaming others or external factors for failures; a decline in overall team performance and morale.

Identifying Questions:

  • Is underperformance not confronted or discussed openly within the team?
  • Do team members hesitate to hold their peers accountable for fear of conflict?

What to Look For:

In a team that holds each other accountable, members are comfortable calling out peers on performance issues because they know it comes from a place of wanting to achieve the best results. For example, if a team member is falling behind on their part of a project, others will step in to offer help or discuss ways to improve, ensuring the team's success is not compromised.

5. Inattention to Results

A results-oriented team prioritizes shared success and goal achievement over individual ego or personal gain, driving collective effort and unity.

  • Presence Signs: Celebration of team achievements; alignment of personal goals with team objectives; mutual support and collaboration; strong sense of shared purpose and dedication to results.
  • Absence Signs: Focus on individual accolades or recognition; competition within the team; indifference to team objectives; sabotaging team efforts for personal advantage; lack of shared celebration in successes.

Identifying Questions:

  • Do team members prioritize their personal success or the success of their department over the team's goals?
  • Is there a lack of collective ambition to achieve team objectives?

What to Look For:

Teams attentive to results focus on collective success over individual accolades. This is evident when a team celebrates a win together, regardless of who did the most work or whose idea it was. An example is a sales team that works together to exceed their targets, sharing strategies and leads, knowing that their shared success is more valuable than individual achievements.

Fostering Psychological Safety

Creating a psychologically safe environment is not an overnight task, but a continuous process that requires deliberate effort from leaders and team members alike. Leaders can foster this environment by:

  • Modeling Vulnerability: Leaders should lead by example, showing their own vulnerabilities, admitting mistakes, and asking for help when needed.
  • Encouraging Open Dialogue: Create spaces for open communication, where every team member feels heard and valued for their contributions.
  • Setting Clear Expectations: Clearly define goals, roles, and responsibilities to avoid ambiguity and ensure alignment.
  • Celebrating Collective Wins: Recognize and reward team achievements to reinforce the value of collective success over individual performance.

By asking the right questions and knowing what healthy team dynamics look like, leaders can navigate their teams toward more collaborative, innovative, and productive futures.  

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