Five Dysfunctions of a Team for the Fire Service Instructor

In Patrick Lencioni’s book, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, he discusses 5 principles that are essential to success as a team. Patrick lists the five dysfunctions as Absence of Trust, Fear of Conflict, Lack of Commitment, Avoidance of Accountability, and Inattention to Results. Let’s discuss how these principles can be applied by the fire service instructor to not only ensure success of the individual, but also how those same individuals can learn how to function in a team environment with success.

As fire service instructors, we have the daunting task of taking young men and women with little or no fire service knowledge or life experience and transforming them into functioning and competent individuals that can do their jobs with minimal guidance. We also have the somewhat harder task of engaging tenured members of the fire service, providing them with information that they feel is valuable and worth their time. While both of these tasks can be complicated in their own right, how do you bring the two together and have success? I believe that implementing the five fundamental principles of a team into your learning environment is the secret sauce to creating successful team.

The five dysfunctions are represented by a triangle, one principle building on another. At the bottom of that triangle is Absence of Trust. Having trust with one another is essential for the success of a team. Without trust the other principles will either completely fail or never reach their full potential. The dysfunctions cannot be isolated. They must be dealt with together as a whole. Let’s dig into the five dysfunctions and how they apply to the fire service instructor.Picture for five dysfunctions of a team article.png

Dysfunction 1 – Absence of Trust. 

Building an environment of trust must start with the first interaction you have with others. Instructors must continually build upon any trust that is gained. Guard this trust with everything you have, because without it teamwork fails. In the fire service, trust takes time to develop through shared experiences, consistency, honesty, and follow through. Instructors in an academy style environment often use military style antics to drive recruits to learn. This works for a short period of time, but in the fire service this has shown to produce short term results. One way to instantly begin to build trust with your students is to be vulnerable with them. You need to develop relationships with the students, get to know them, show them you are human and then require the same from them within their own teams.

The fire service is based on the premise of teamwork and if you have been in the fire service for any length of time, you have seen teams that work and teams that don’t. If you drill down to the core reason why the teams fail, it comes down to lack of trust within the team. If there is no trust, the team cannot even begin to be vulnerable enough to address the other four dysfunctions. Make building trust the through line of what you teach others so that when they get out into the fire service, they know how to do it within their new team.

Suggestions on how to overcome lack of trust.

If you want to build trust, set the example. Get to know others and let them get to know the real you. At the beginning of the class, use this time to have a few questions that everyone has to answer. This not only breaks the ice, but also helps people begin to be vulnerable in front of others. Some questions could be about their families, where are they from, favorite hobbies and worst job. This tool helps others gain empathy for others. Remember, being vulnerable is essential part of building trust.

Another way to build trust is to set up team building exercises. In the fire service, nothing builds teams and trust more than a little competition. It forces the groups to work together and also benefits the instructors by helping early identification of natural leaders and those that may struggle under stress.

Make sure to get your tenured members involved during all five steps of the team building process. This is important due to the vast generational differences in learning styles. If you have them work together early, they can begin to build trust and learn to appreciate their differences as strengths that when leveraged properly, can benefit the overall success of the team.

Dysfunction 2 – Fear of Conflict

Now that trust is being developed, fear of punishment due to conflict diminishes. Let’s be honest, most firefighters are generally not afraid of conflict. The issue that occurs most often is that a large portion of that conflict is not productive in nature. The conflict is based on limited information and is often personality focused. In order for conflict to be beneficial to the teams overall success it has to have the purpose of producing the best possible solution in the shortest period of time. The instructor plays the role of mentor and facilitator when it comes to conflict. We need to make sure that any conflict stays productive and solution oriented. Letting your team have conflict builds problem solving skills and bolsters trust. Avoiding conflict creates an environment where backdoor politics and personal attacks happen. This is not a good use of anyone’s time. The team needs to believe that conflict is a necessary part of success. “A team that fights together, stays together” is the mantra of this principle.

Suggestions on how to overcome fear of conflict.

Early on teams will need reinforcement of the importance of productive conflict. The instructor will need to keep an eye out for team members becoming uncomfortable with the level of conflict and spur them on to continue. Try to avoid feeling like you need to protect team members and control the teams. Take the time to build some scenarios that address controversial issues and allow teams to work towards a solution. It is important to build this skill in a controlled environment so it become second nature before being used in an emergency situation. The understanding of the need to just do what you are asked is also essential. The knowledge of when this method can be used and when it cannot is important to distinguish, such as an order from an officer on a fire scene.

Dysfunction 3 – Lack of Commitment

Having productive conflict fosters an environment where people feel like they are heard and have input. Teams can now buy into and commit to decisions. Really good teams make clear decision and move forward. This does not mean that they are 100% certain of the decision or that they have gained consensus of the team. Waiting until everyone agrees or until there is enough information that you are 100% certain of your decision will only drive a lack of confidence in the team and encourages second guessing. Fire service instructors need to teach others how to quickly gather information and make a decision. This is an essential skill for a firefighter to have. We need to help teams avoid the “paralysis by analysis” that can occur.

Suggestions on how to overcome lack of commitment.

In order to gain commitment and buy in, instructors must provide a clear direction and avoid any ambiguity. What is to be achieved must be fully understood. One tool to develop this principle is to assign projects and set clear deadlines. A fun project for recruit teams would be to have them come up with a solution for a common fire department issue. Give them clear objectives, provide strict deadlines and hold them to it.

Dysfunction 4 – Avoidance of Accountability

Team members will only hold each other accountable if they trust each other, know what is expected from them and are committed to the goal. Holding each other accountable is harder than it seems. But, at this level team members begin to worry about the success of the team and when they do, they will recognize and address underperforming members of the team. “It’s not what you preach, It’s what you tolerate” – Jocko Willink. As an instructor, if you tolerate poor performance, then poor performance becomes the acceptable norm. This includes holding yourself accountable for your own actions. If instructors, show up late, are unprofessionally dressed, use profanity etc.… Do not be surprised when others begin to do the same. This what John Maxwell calls, the Law of the Picture. People do what people see. (Maxwell, 2008)

Suggestions on how to overcome avoidance of accountability.

Making sure all members know exactly what is expected and how they are to behave in order to be successful is essential. Avoid any ambiguity. Have team members report regularly on any projects they are working on. This will force them to stay on task and on time. Another way to enforce accountability is to reward teams, not individuals, when they meet or exceed expected goals. It is important to allow teams to manage this on a peer to peer level whenever possible. It an individual comes to you with a complaint and has not attempted to address directly, guide them in that direction.

Dysfunction 5 – Inattention to Results

If members are not being held accountable by their peers, they will more than likely start to focus on their own needs and personal success. Teams that thrive, focus on the overall results and success of the team. As an instructor this is where we can have the most impact. Teaching strong willed individuals how to focus on the collective goals of a team is an important part of setting them up for success in their fire service career.

Suggestions on how to overcome inattention to results.

First, instructors need to make sure that all teams fully understand what the goals and expectations are. One way to improve attention to results is to publicly post results of teams achievements. As stated before, competition is in our blood as firefighters. We do not like to lose and will tend to do whatever it takes to win, including working as a team, holding each other accountable etc.…

In conclusion, if you look at the most successful fire departments from around the world, they to some extent do well in most of the dysfunctional areas of a team. As an instructor, it is your duty to not only teach our new members how to perform and eventually master the multitude of skills that a modern day firefighter needs to be safe and successful. With that said, we do ourselves a disservice by not training them how to do these same skills as a team. After all, team work will always be the most important skill we can master.

Lencioni, P. (2012). The five dysfunctions of a team: Team assessment. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Maxwell, J. C. (2008). The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership: Deluxe Edition. Thomas Nelson Inc.

1 Like

Great read!

October 1, 2020 06:27 AM by Marc Davidson

On point.  Replace "instructor" with "leader" and equally applicable.  Would like to share this out with your permission.

Great Information

October 2, 2020 11:22 AM by John M. Schafer

Really great points and good info! 

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