The four elements and the five dysfunctions of a team

Continuing the series about the four elements, let’s examine Patrick Lencioni’s Five Dysfunctions of a Team and how his model relates to the elements.

According to Lencioni, the five dysfunctions of a team are, in order,

1. Absence of  TRUST

2. Fear of CONFLICT


4. Avoidance of ACCOUNTABILITY

5. Inattention to RESULTS

Each dysfunction leads naturally to the following one. When the team members don’t trust each other, they cannot expose themselves and their true feelings and ideas, so they will naturally avoid engaging fully on the discussion, fearing to let an open flank. Since they feel they didn’t have really had their views taken into consideration, they are not really bought in, and they fail to commit. Since they’re not committed, they can’t be made accountable (it wasn’t my idea to begin with). When people are not committed nor accountable, they are more preoccupied with their own status or individual objectives,  instead of with the team’s results.

Let’s try to understand how this model relates to the four elements.

The last dysfunction is related to the fire X earth dichotomy. Objective results are earth’s domain, whilst personal status is fiery by nature. So, at the end of the day, we’re trying to achieve earth. But, as the second dysfunction tells us, we won’t get to earth if we avoid using fire, in the form of conflict, to melt the ingredients of the team’s alchemy. But fire is way too dangerous to be let free. If fire is in the air, people will naturally raise their defenses, and fire’s potential benefit will all be lost. How to let people comfortable to play with fire without getting burnt? The answer is that the environment should be sufficiently humid. Watery trust and safety is the base of the building.

To summarize, you should start with Water. Water then enables Fire, and Fire enables Earth. It’s interesting to notice that, in traditional terms, Water kills Fire, and Fire kills Earth. That’s another example of the old principle that the difference of venom and medicine is just the size of the dose. The sculptor’s chisel must kill the stone to transform it into a piece of art. Water must restrain Fire to channel it into constructive conflict of ideas instead of personal attacks. Fire must challenge Earth’s inertia to remove the dust and extract the gem from it.


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