Teaching Students Collaboration Skills Using The Five Dysfunctions of a Team

There is a popular and wise mantra in education that goes like this: Don’t assess anything that you don’t teach.
It’s common sense, even if the “teach” part takes on a non-traditional look. In project-based learning (PBL), we expect students to collaborate and apply content to solve real-world, authentic problems. There’s an implication there–not only are we responsible for supporting their acquisition and application of the content, we also must very intentionally and purposefully teach them to collaborate.
One of my favorite books on the topic of teamwork is The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable by Patrick Lencioni. At school, we use this very engaging story to help students understand the necessary components of a functioning team. Lencioni presents the hierarchy of issues that teams face, as shown in the diagram below.


At the base of the pyramid is “Absence of Trust.” He contends that without showing some vulnerability, a person can’t be a high-functioning team member. This characteristic is the foundation upon which all others are based.
In the classroom, we take this seriously. Often, at the inception of a new project group, we will ask students to share something that requires them to be vulnerable, such as answering, “What is the most embarrassing thing that has ever happened to you?” or by playing a quick game called “Two Truths and Lie.” Obviously these are just starting points for the development of trust, but the point is, it’s intentional.

Artificial Harmony

Once trust is established, groups have an entry point for addressing issues as they come up (and they always come up). “Fear of Conflict” is the next layer of dysfunction that Lencioni offers. An issue that remains unaddressed is apt to breed contempt and disconnection between group members. Again, how does an instructor support the very uncomfortable process of addressing conflicts?
One approach that can have a very profoundly positive effect on a school or classroom’s culture is the “24-Hour Check-In Rule.” Simply put, if someone does or says a specific thing that rubs you the wrong way, you have 24 hours to address it with that person. If you do not, then you agree to let it go. It takes on the fear of conflict directly and encourages open, clear communication. When an entire group of people buy into this guideline, there is virtually no “water cooler talk” and a lot more meaningful, productive conversation.
Teams in a PBL project always spend time in the early part of a project writing a group contract. One section of the contract addresses how conflict will be addressed. While there are a variety of approaches to this delicate topic, we ask that students establish a stepwise process, even if they’re sure they won’t need it. They should have the initial responsibility to bring awareness of the issue to the group. At some later point in the process, the adults get involved (often just as a formality) to ensure that everyone is truly satisfied with the outcome of the conflict resolution.


“Lack of Commitment” is an issue that people and teams of all types encounter. In PBL, we ask students to think big, and not to fear failure. Time is spent early in the project to imagine the great possibilities that exist and make plans to achieve them.
Breaking down large tasks into smaller ones is nothing new in teaching, but in projects, it’s even more important to have concrete benchmarks. These help us gauge progress and catch any waving commitment earlier than we would have otherwise, and help us plan for reaching the finish line in one piece. These benchmarks are often established by the instructor, but with older and more experienced PBL students, there’s no reason why they shouldn’t have a heavy hand in setting benchmarks and evaluating progress towards them honestly.

Low Standards

“Avoidance of Accountability” might also be described as the art of pointing fingers. When students establish benchmarks, task lists, research tasks, there should always be one or more names next to those items and a due date. Tasks should always be as specific as possible, so as to avoid that ambiguity that comes with lack of commitment.
It should be noted that individual accountability to a group includes doing homework, reading assignments and other traditional assignments; no matter how valuable the “soft skill” that a certain student brings to a group, be it creativity, tech savvy, or presentation skills, all students must know the content. Otherwise, they may have a brilliant presentation with very little substance.

Status and Ego

“Inattention to Results” is the classic human behavior of putting your personal success before that of the group. This can be a major factor with kids. Some of it undoubtedly stems from pressure applied by parents (i.e. “Just do what you need to do to cover your own back side.”)
When groups set out together on a project, they will always have individual goals, as they should. But it’s important that they have a set of shared goals as well, such as the type of project they’ll complete, the quality of the product, the learning they are seeking or the grade they will earn. If they have some shared skin in the game, they are less likely to waver along the way. So we always have students write some explicit goals on their group contracts at the beginning of their project, and then revisit those goals throughout.
The Five Dysfunctions of a Team has provided us with a veritable textbook of how to teach kids to work together. We’ve even had them read the whole book as a part of a leadership project. Since we are preparing kids for a world that needs teams, we must teach them how to belong to one sooner, not later.
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Glennda Long

I love this article the 24 hour check in rule sounds wonderful. Students establish the way conflict is handled, are they given guidelines to follow when establishing how to handle conflicts?

Andrew Larson

Hi Glennda,
Yes, students are given guidelines. We encourage students to find another person (probably an adult at first) to help moderate the check- in. Basic guidelines include using "I" statements and addressing the behavior of concern, not the person. Prior to a check- in, we ask that students document the concerns, and during the check- in, sort of "stay to script" (i.e. not focus on more distant events not previously addressed.) Finally, there should be next steps (solutions/ strategies to try) as appropriate.

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