• Roz Thornton

How to build high performing leadership teams

Updated: Sep 9, 2019

Roz Thornton, co-founder & managing partner, Roots Transformation.

“If you could get all the people in an organisation rowing in the same direction, you could dominate any industry, in any market, against any competition, at any time” Patrick Lencioni, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team

I like Patrick Lencioni’s rowing boat analogy. If you’ve ever walked along a riverbank as a rowing eight glides by, cutting through the water like a hot knife through butter, you’ll have witnessed the sheer power of the rowers’ strokes being completely in sync; the team rowing as one. Yet it takes just one rower to lose his stroke, drop an oar or ‘catch a crab’ for the progress of the boat and its entire team to flounder.

So how can we help teams in businesses to row in the same direction with synchronicity?

At Roots we’ve chosen Patrick Lencioni’s Five Dysfunctions of a Team as our framework for supporting the development of teams and I’ll get to the reasons for that in a moment. But first, here’s an overview.

Lencioni identified a hierarchy of five behaviours that are common to all dysfunctional teams, regardless of the organisation or setting. They are:

  • Absence of trust

  • Fear of conflict

  • Lack of commitment

  • Avoidance of accountability

  • Inattention to results  So, for a team to be cohesive and high functioning, trust, conflict, commitment, accountability and attention to results must be present. Arranged in a pyramid, each goal has to be achieved in turn before the next level can be reached.


Sitting at the bottom of the pyramid, trust is the foundation for creating a productive team; with higher level goals only attainable once trust is an established behaviour. This refers to vulnerability-based trust. When team members are able to be vulnerable with one another and are willing to admit to their shortcomings and mistakes, a culture of trust can exist.


Perhaps it seems counter-intuitive, but conflict within a team is a good thing provided that it’s impersonal and focussed on issues in the pursuit of truth. It’s essential to have established a level of trust first, otherwise conflict can become political. But when the conditions are right, conflict enables all members of a team to engage in honest, passionate debate about key issues in the organisation.


Once the conditions for healthy conflict have been established, team members are able to commit to key decisions and see a clear direction of travel. Even if individual team members don’t agree with the final decision on an issue, provided that they’ve been able to have their say and know that their views have been considered, they can commit fully to that decision.


Team members must hold one another accountable for their actions and behaviours for the overall good of the team and the wider organisation. As long as the team has made a commitment to clear expectations and deadlines, team members will feel able to apply a degree of peer pressure and to call one another out if they’re not delivering.


Each team member should be accountable for the collective goals and results of the team, rather than prioritising their individual needs. Once teams have a solid base of trust, healthy conflict, commitment and team accountability, they can stay focussed on the collective responsibility of achieving results for the business.

Why use the Five Dysfunctions of a Team framework?

Of course, this framework is just one of a host of models available for building high performing teams, so why did we choose it to underpin the work we do? There are many reasons, but here are our top five:

1. It’s tried, tested and impactful As more than 20,000 teams have used Lencioni’s official Five Dysfunctions of a Team assessment and many tens of thousands more are using the framework, it speaks for itself. What’s more, we’ve experienced the impact of the associated activities first-hand; witnessing their significant power in transforming fragmented teams into those that are cohesive and high performing. So we’re in no doubt of its effectiveness.

2. It’s simple

The power of this model lies in its simplicity. Lencioni has distilled everything down to five critical behaviours that can be developed to achieve cohesiveness and elevated performance. And a wonderful side effect of developing these critical behaviours in teams is the creation of an inspiring working culture which ripples out into people’s personal lives.

3. It has an emotive element

The framework is emotive and ‘pokey’ in parts, which stimulates people into thinking differently. This includes the assertion that it’s necessary for team members to show vulnerability. This is so often mistaken for a weakness when in fact it takes courage and fosters trust. Equally, the need for healthy conflict among team members may seem surprising. Yet it enables positive debate around important issues, drives peer-to-peer accountability and increases team commitment to key decisions.

4. It incorporates the impact of personality types

MBTI (Myers–Briggs Type Indicator) is used within the framework as a tool to ease people into talking about their personalities. It enables them to see how the different personalities in a team play out; impacting them as individuals and their ability to work as a team. This raises self-awareness and acceptance of others while reducing frustration. It also helps team members to utilise one another’s strengths to drive team effectiveness.

5. The leader remains the leader

The leader remains the leader throughout the entire process, which we love! This framework isn’t about shifting all of the emphasis onto the team; it’s about the leader modelling and driving behaviours that he or she wants to see, while also making it crystal clear that the responsibility for making the final call is theirs. This allows for strong, clear and committed leadership and an aligned team that’s high in morale.

Lasting change

Ultimately, the goal is to achieve change that is both impactful and sustainable. Building a cohesive, aligned and high performing leadership team - in which the members continue to row in sync in the same direction - is the first step in creating a healthy organisation, and the conditions in which people can thrive while the business excels.

Click here to learn more about Roots' approach to transforming leadership teams.

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