• Dr. Andrew Kitchenham

Lack of Trust: Lencioni's Other Trust Pyramid

Last week, I discussed Lencioni’s Trust Pyramid in the context of behavioural principles for the positive working relationship between and among employees. This week, I would like to re-examine those same principles in light of when they are not working drawing on Lencioni’s (2002), The five dysfunctions of a team: A leadership fable. I will frame the discussion around two critical truths emphasized by Lencioni: genuine teamwork in organizations is still elusive despite many claims made about cohesiveness by the organizations; and, those organizations fail to achievement that cohesion among the teams because of “five natural but dangerous pitfalls” that he called the five dysfunctions of a team. As I said before, I like to draw my clients’ and coachees’ attentions to the pyramid and those five as a path to reaching the opposite of those dysfunctions.


The Trust Pyramid in the earlier model includes five dysfunctions: (1) Absence of Trust; (2) Fear of Conflict; (3) Lack of Commitment; (4) Avoidance of Accountability; and, (5) Inattention to Results.


Absence of Trust: This behavioural principle is the most-important one because it is the foundation of the pyramid and sets the stage for the remaining four. It occurs when team members or coachees do not want to present themselves as vulnerable by acknowledging their mistakes and witnesses. What it means in the workplace is that members will be hesitant to ask for assistance when they are stuck or confused or to request some constructive criticism about a project or production; they will tend to not give their colleagues the benefit of the doubt but would rather just jump to conclusions about their colleagues’ competencies; they will either avoid or will not recognize that their colleagues have skillsets into which they could tap; they will avoid any public meetings or have excuses for not attending; and, they hold massive grudges and hold on to things for a long time. To put it bluntly, they are not open to revealing their foibles for fear that they could not trust their colleagues to keep it confidential, or worse, to use it as a weapon against them.


Fear of Conflict: Since the trust is absent, many employees are not willing to engage in conflict but substitute carefully-worded retorts or obtuse discussions. They would rather hold it in or reveal very little when engaging in debates of ideas about which they are passionate but are not willing to stick out their necks. Of course, their conflict styles come into it as well but it is mainly around their absolute fear of engaging in conflicts even when they know that open discussions and disagreement are healthy in their other relationships. It is also important to mention that productive conflict should be promoted in the workplace as it “is limited to concepts and ideas and avoids personality-focused, mean-spirited attacks [but] can have many of the same external qualities of interpersonal conflict—passion, emotion, and frustration—so much so that an outside observer might easily mistake it for unproductive discord” (p. 202). Often, when members do not engage in or avoid productive conflict (i.e., openly debate and disagree about crucial ideas or concepts), they end up stirring the pot by launching personal attacks on their colleagues behind their backs which are vitriolic and counterproductive to a positive working environment.


Lack of Commitment: Because there is not a trust between and among team members and they do not wish to engage in healthy conflict, many times the members will either not commit to an action plan or will fake it by agreeing in public settings such as departmental meetings but not be genuine in any follow through. What is needed is simply clarity and buy-in from the team members; what stops them is usually a desire for consensus and the need for certainty. In other words, team members (including leaders) strive for consensus among the members rather than general buy-in based on the members believing that they have had their say in the matter—even if they do not agree with the decision. Related to consensus is the need for certainty among members which occurs when they want absolute assurance that the decision will be correct. Good teams and leaders support the decision even if there is not a 100% assurance that it will be the best decision and they understand that there is no certainty in decisions but a decision allows members to move forward and not backward or, worse, stuck on the issue.


Avoidance of Accountability: Without the previous layers of the pyramid (i.e., trust; conflict engagement; commitment to an action), employees are reluctant to call out their colleagues who might not be following what was agreed to in meetings even though the decision was productive for common goals (i.e., accountability). To be sure, the person must be able to tolerate personal discomfort when calling out a colleague so, to avoid that discomfort, the person shies away from it and often goes to a supervisor or bottles it up—either approach is a powder keg for later repercussions. Ironically, peer pressure makes a better and more cohesive team as members push each other to do their best so avoiding accountability conversations weakens the team and its performance.


Inattention to Results: Lastly, team members sometimes do not put the interests of the organization as their first priority so that they focus on individual goals such as career advancement or on the results of their individual departments or section so that they or others within their immediate group are seen as successful. It should be noted that results are related to outcome-based performance rather than financial-based performance. For team status, individuals might be satisfied with being part of a team within an organization or a department so that their outcomes are not related to the success of the larger organization but rather on being part of the team. Concentrating on individual status is about looking for better opportunities through enhancing their positions or using the team as a means to advance their career within the present organization or with another organization.


In summary, a team or organization can become dysfunctional when lack of trust is evident as it influences all other aspects of the pyramid even if the leadership team is small enough to get results and to show vulnerability. Without having key opportunities to air their views in a productive conflict manner, they will not reach a stage of commitment so that all members are convinced that they had their say in the decision-making process. Lastly, they hold each other accountable starting at the top (the leader) and continue to have an open approach to any disagreements.

I will be taking some time off and will return in January 2021. I wish all a safe and productive holiday season.


Further reading:


Lencioni, P. (2002). The five dysfunctions of a team: A leadership fable. Jossey-Bass.


#TrustPyramid, #Trust, #LackOfTrust, #Conflict, #ConflictCoaching, #ConflictResolution, #PatrickLencioni


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