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5 dysfunctions that turn teams into mere groups

From issues of trust, conflict and commitment to accountability avoidance and inattention, dysfunction can render a team utterly ineffective


It’s imperative that fire crews work as a team while on a call.

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This article was originally posted in the Paramedic Chief Leadership Briefing. Subscribe today for more research insights, leadership tips and operational strategies delivered to your inbox.

Working in the fire service and EMS is the ultimate team sport. It cannot be done alone. All firefighters, EMTs and paramedics know the satisfaction and sense of pride and belonging when the team is functioning together seamlessly. Unfortunately, most responders also know the feelings that come when the team is not working well: discomfort, alienation, anger, even fear.

In his book “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable, author Patrick Lencioni describes the five most dangerous ways that teams fail to operate effectively. Although his book is framed in a corporate model, his conclusions apply equally to emergency services.

Let’s review each dysfunction and its application to the fire and EMS services.

Dysfunction 1: Absence of trust

Trust is the bedrock of emergency service; without it, responders cannot do their jobs. If first responders lose the trust of the communities they serve, people will not call them for help when it is needed. They will not candidly answer questions or offer information. They will assume an adversarial relationship in any interaction.

Of course, firefighters, EMTs and paramedics must also have the trust of their coworkers, whose lives are, sometimes quite literally, in their hands. Officers and field supervisors must be trusted by those they lead so that decisions are not second-guessed or undermined.

It is easy to break trust and hard to win it back. A team that does not value trust is one that is doomed to fail.

Dysfunction 2: Fear of conflict

This is a problem that affects many individuals and teams. We used to joke in my department that if firefighters felt comfortable with conflict, they would have become cops. Firefighters and EMS providers like being good guys, and many prefer to avoid conflict rather than deal with it. “Go along to get along” is something you hear as a value in many emergency departments, and this approach can work with low-level conflict. But for real problems, members may lack the will and skills to effectively deal with them. Poorly managed conflict always undermines team cohesion.

Dysfunction 3: Lack of commitment

On any given team, there may be individuals who seem to be going along for the ride, and who lack personal commitment to the goals and objectives of the team and organization. Sometimes these people are just slackers, and other times they might be actively undermining the team while still paying lip service to the stated mission.

Dysfunction 4: Avoidance of accountability

This problem often goes hand-in-hand with the previous dysfunction: Everyone knows that one person isn’t pulling their weight or may be actively doing damage to the team behind the scenes, but no one wants to say anything.

There are many reasons why it can be hard to hold someone accountable. The individual in question may be someone that others like personally, or they may have a lot of seniority on the job. Maybe that person used to be a good team member, but performance has slipped for some reason. Sometimes peers and leaders fear confronting someone because they lack skills to do it and they don’t want to escalate a conflict they think they can’t handle.

Dysfunction 5: Inattention to results

This problem can manifest for a couple of different reasons. Sometimes, teams are poorly trained and not held to any standards of performance. Sometimes, they value camaraderie over output. Sometimes, they are hindered by members who put their individual need for recognition over the achievements of the group. Ultimately, teams exist to perform. While it is critical that they function interpersonally, they must also achieve results that serve the larger organization and mission.

Work as a team, not a group

It is easy to see how emergency service teams could malfunction in any of these five areas. How many bad outcomes could have been avoided if someone had felt comfortable enough to say “no” when the rest of the group was going off the rails? How many “problem employees” could have turned their careers around if someone had held them accountable early on for their actions?

Team dysfunction is cumulative. You don’t lose trust for one mistake if that bad action is recognized and atoned for. Everyone avoids conflict now and then, but when it becomes the norm, that will undermine the effectiveness of the team. Allowing individual team members to become marginalized for any reason and allowing others to act alone means that you may be working in a group, but you don’t have a team.

Lencioni’s book was published in 2002, and he ends it with a section titled “A Special Tribute to Teamwork.” He writes, “As I was nearing the completion of this book, the horrible events of September 11, 2001, occurred. Amid the unfathomable tragedy of the situation and the amazing triumph of the country’s response, a powerful and inspiring example of teamwork emerged – one that must be acknowledged here.”

He goes on to recognize the commitment and sacrifice of the men and women of fire, rescue and police departments who responded that day – “groups of people working together [who] can accomplish what no assembly of mere individuals could ever dream of doing.”

At their best, first responders are the epitome of what a team can be. The challenge is to maintain this commitment every single day.

Linda Willing is a retired career fire officer and currently works with emergency services agencies and other organizations on issues of leadership development, decision making, and diversity management through her company, RealWorld Training and Consulting. She is also an adjunct instructor and curriculum advisor with the National Fire Academy. Linda is the author of On the Line: Women Firefighters Tell Their Stories. She has a bachelor’s degree in American studies, a master’s degree in organization development and is a certified mediator. Linda is a member of the FireRescue1/Fire Chief Editorial Advisory Board. To contact Linda, e-mail