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This information should benefit anyone involved in Islamic organizations, but it really needs extra attention from those in leadership positions in their communities to start to effect the type of change needed to prevent dysfunction.

The Five Dysfunctions Are

  1. Absence of Trust
  2. Fear of Conflict
  3. Lack of Commitment
  4. Avoidance of Accountability
  5. Inattention to Results

These are laid out by Patrick Lencioni in his book, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable. While the pertinence to a professional or corporate environment is obvious, these are at the core of the problems faced by masajid and Islamic organizations across the country.

1. Absence of Trust

The fear of being vulnerable with team members prevents the building of trust within the team.

Understanding trust means refining our notions of the term. Trust means knowing the others around you have good intentions, and that you don't need to shield yourself around them. It is distinct from reliance, which is “trusting” that a peer will perform a given task reliably. Trust is being able to open up, and show vulnerability while knowing that those vulnerabilities won't be used against you.

What we find with many Islamic organizations is that people's actions are dictated by what others will think about them. Think about the person elected to be the masjid treasurer with no accounting or financial experience whatsoever. This person continues to do this job day in and day out, despite not being able to do it well. Instead, this person is focusing on holding this position for strategic reasons vis-a-vis others within the organization. He is constantly trying to protect himself. If trust existed within the organization, he would be able to display that vulnerability and instead be 100% focused on performing the treasurer duties to the best of his ability.

It is commonplace that the higher ranking members in these organizations are usually the “well-educated” ones (e.g. the “doctor uncle”). One thing we often fail to realize is that these people have been trained their entire lives to be competitive with their peers and constantly outperform them. Personal reputations are at stake. If these instincts cannot be 'turned off' for the betterment of the organization, then a lot of time is invested into managing the fallout. Examples of this include having constant meetings to manage people's behaviors, and seeing a decrease in the willingness of organization members to help one another.

Organizationally, another factor that contributes to a loss of trust is not identifying and utilizing people's skills. How can trust exist in a masjid construction project when a Muslim contractor who has been managing construction projects for a living for over 20 years is sitting around while the organization turns over the masjid construction plans to a pediatrician?

This is the fundamental building block to freeing Islamic organizations of dysfunction, and it is perhaps the hardest because it requires the greatest overhaul in attitude and environment.

Once established however, it can foster constructive conflict.

2. Fear of Conflict

The desire to preserve artificial harmony stifles the occurrence of productive, ideological conflict.

-Important concept to understand: Ideological conflict vs. Personal conflict-

Have you ever met a husband and wife who never had an argument with one another? Have you ever met a parent that never had a disagreement with his or her children? Didn't think so.

Why do we expect that Islamic organizations should operate under some kind of happy-go-lucky utopia? To preserve this naive notion of how things should be, we avoid engaging in any kind of conflict. What ends up happening then is that direct conflict is avoided within the organization, but it is replaced with back-stabbing, personal conflicts, and politics.

You have seen the organization where there may be a body of 7 people. 3 of them meet separately, and 4 of them meet separately. Then they concoct conspiracy theories about how the opposing camp really feels about an issue, and why they are pushing a particular position over another. Then they get riled up, and go out to the community seeking more support for their own side. Next thing you know, it's an all out community conflict with name-calling, people not talking to each other, and the conflict finally erupting at a dinner party at some innocent person's house while the innocent bystanders try to enjoy some chicken biryani.

Muslim organizations simply seem to want to avoid having any healthy conflict (discussion). This is why they all dread meetings that are boring, and where nothing gets done. When organization members trust each other, they can talk freely with one another and debate the merits of different ideas. Sit down and completely hash it out. A certain level of maturity is of course required, so that the debate does not turn personal. The element of trust is what allows people to freely credit or discredit ideas without worrying about hurting someone's feelings (and then later making personal attacks behind their back).

Meetings should be lively and focus on the concepts and ideas being discussed – even if they become emotional. Let people be passionate about why they feel that a certain project is a waste of money, or that the dome of the masjid should be 25 feet in diameter instead of 30 feet, and so on.

This is important because once the merits of an idea have been thoroughly discussed, everyone has had a chance to air their objections or concerns, and people can respond to them. So let the best ideas win. Once that is done, even the people who initially opposed the idea, can support it from an organizational perspective. Contrast this with a board member who unwillingly votes in favor of a certain project, waiting for it to fail, then running around telling the community, “I told you so!”

3. Lack of Commitment

The lack of clarity or buy-in prevents team members from making decisions to which they will commit.

Commitment only comes from the step above – once everyone's perspectives and opinions have been heard, they can all buy into the concept knowing that all ideas have been considered. And of course, that discussion cannot take place without step 1 – establishing trust.

According to Lencioni, the two biggest factors hindering commitment are:

  1. Desire for consensus
  2. Need for certainty

It seems many Islamic organizations refuse to move forward even one step without both of those being in place. Finding consensus is a nearly impossible task, and consensus is usually sought out of fear of backlash. It seems leaders are unwilling to make decisions without 100% support in case something goes wrong, they can defend themselves. This is unhealthy for the growth of any organization.

People do not need to agree with a decision in order to support it. As long as their ideas have been properly heard (explained in the step above), then they can rally around the decision – even if they disagree with it.

The need for certainty is closely related to the phenomenon of analysis paralysis. Organizations are unwilling to make a decision until a certain amount of data is available to them – at which point it might be too late. They have an innate need to feel like they have made the correct decision. Often times, a decision will need to be made quickly, and without the benefit of having all of the relevant information available. It is important to decide, and move on. Better to go down swinging then not show up at all. We are blessed with istikharah and shura. Utilize them. Constantly delaying a decision, or flip-flopping back and forth will not help you make the correct choice, instead it will just kill your credibility.

Symptoms of lack of commitment include: ambiguity about direction and priorities, lack of confidence, fear of failure, and revisiting issues over and over for discussion. Islamic organizations need to clearly define their goals, rally around those common objectives, create an environment of learning from mistakes, and moving forward without regret.

The Prophet (sal-Allahu 'alayhi was-Sallam) said the believer is not bitten from the same hole twice. We cannot demand perfection, but we demand the best effort.

4. Avoidance of Accountability

The need to avoid interpersonal discomfort prevents team members from holding one another accountable.

Lack of clarity and direction (as explained in the step above) makes it impossible to hold anyone accountable. How can someone be accountable if they do not know what is expected in the first place?

Successful organizations must have an environment in place where people are able to call each other out for not living up to their standards. This should be the case whether positions are paid or unpaid. People are uncomfortable letting others know that their performance may not be up to the expected standards because they fear losing a volunteer, or perhaps even a friendship. Letting these feelings fester though, will only cause those relationships to deteriorate. It is time for Islamic organizations to stop settling, and demand the best – even if it requires some personal discomfort along the way. Doing this will actually develop mutual respect amongst the people working within the organization because they know they are equally being held to the same high standards by one another.

If this accountability is not there, then people begin to simply look out for their own self-interests over and above the interests of the organization.

5. Inattention to Results

The pursuit of individual goals and personal status erodes the focus on collective success.

Once an organization has clearly defined its goals and objectives, it must focus on meeting them. When an organization loses sight of those results, their attention shifts elsewhere. Lencioni says 'elsewhere' in this case would be team and individual status:

Team Status: For [some], merely being part of the group is enough to keep them satisfied. For them, the achievement of specific results might be desirable, but not necessarily worthy of great sacrifice or inconvenience. As ridiculous and dangerous as this might seem, plenty of teams fall prey to the lure of status. These often include altruistic nonprofit organizations that come to believe that the nobility of their mission is enough to justify their satisfaction … as they often see success in merely being associated with their special organizations.

Individual Status: This refers … [to people focusing] on enhancing their own positions … at the expense of the team.

The collective results must be more important than individual aims and objectives. One important note is the relationship of this dysfunction to the issue of trust (step 1). Individuals getting involved must also cleanse their hearts of any ill intentions such as seeking fame and credit in the community. The eventual breakdown of an entire organization can start from the simplest of individual wants or intentions.

Concluding Thoughts

Lencioni summarized it best:

And so, like a chain with just one link broken, teamwork deteriorates if even a single dysfunction is allowed to flourish.

Another way to understand this model is to take the opposite approach – a positive one – and imagine how members of a truly cohesive team behave:

  1. They trust one another.
  2. They engage in unfiltered conflict around ideas.
  3. They commit to decisions and plans of action.
  4. They hold one another accountable for delivering against those plans.
  5. They focus on the achievement of collective results.

Please also see: The 90/10 Rule for Masjids

20 Responses

  1. Aboo Khalida

    Assalaamu Alaykum Ibn Abee Omar
    Mashaa Allaah, a very informative, well thought content which every Islamic Organization must put into practice. And rightly said, many organizations fail in the long run especially because the initial zest, motivation and other fuels dry down over a period of time due to lack of professionalism in running and this article clearly defines the “lack of professionalism” cause for the dysfunctions. I wish and pray to Allaah that Islamic Organizations do look into this matter seriously and commit again to the cause of developing a good healthy Islamic Community. May Allaah bless you & your family with the best in this world and the Hereafter.

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  2. shahgul

    I am not sure the above model fits our organizations like a glove.

    For one, our members have no fear of conflict. We are always ready to get physical, bash each other in the worst possible ways and then not let anybody call the police on each other.

    The thakaydars (those people who think they have all but bought exclusive property rights to the masjid) of the masjid are totally committed to the masjid as long as they are re-elected/appointed forever. There is not need for consensus, as the will of one man, one family, or one group prevails.

    The biggest problems, though are, first, the Doctor Syndrome. The very fact that Dr. so n so is the biggest donor, also empowers them to deliver the khutba, become president of masjid, and give fatwas. This problem is, however subsiding, now that more people are learning the deen and less people are willing to swallow the placebos handed out by these doctors.

    The second problem is the Uncle Syndrome. Every man over fifty thinks he is entitled to play the masjid politics game. The masjid is the place where these gentlemen can have endless meetings where they can endlessly listen to the sound of their own voice.

    The third problem is the Back Home Syndrome. A lot of us, specially the uncles, have still not arrived in the US. We try to recreate the environment, culture and politics of our home countries on this soil and fail terribly.

    The fourth problem is the bad attitude of the Youth. Yet, they are not willing to work with the general population. That is, they are all right and happy working and volunteering with youth organizations, but will not contribute to the general day to day working of the masajid. They will, yet, complain about not being given chance to participate. For example, the volunteer organizer of a yearly conference did not allow anyone above 30 to volunteer, just because the youngsters did not like working with older adults.

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    • ibnabeeomar

      The dysfunctions aren’t meant to “fit like a glove” but when you have a dysfunctional team, i would contend that the issues outlined here exist in the team.

      for example:

      Fear of Conflict: Remember the distinction in the article, conflict over IDEAS. not conflicts between people. id say that the fact that there’s so much personal conflict is probably a result of the fact that ideas can’t be discussed properly.

      the rest of your points are good and highlight a lot of what we see in many communities. but i also believe that once the steps in the article are implemented, it would alleviate some of these issues by having more accountability in place. some of the issues you mention are also a result of the points above like lack of trust and commitment.

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  3. ahmed

    MashaAllah, excellent article as always.

    I have been in several masjid management meetings, and i find abundant examples for all of the issues you have mentioned. Having been disappointed many times, i chose to expend my energies elsewhere.

    Do you suggest that younger people who work in a corporate culture get involved, even though it will probably mean years of being a gopher for those entrenched in power?

    What do you think is the process (or is there a process) so that these hurdles can be overcome?

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    • ibnabeeomar

      my take is that when there is a will, there’s a way. i think people often mistake being involved, and having a position. in the masjid politics i have personally experienced, i don’t recommend younger people to get involved, unless they are able to come in as a BLOCK with community backing.

      if its a small number of youth, or people without as much influence, i would suggest getting involved in other ways. even doing simple things like taking charge of organizing small programs (even without any official title) will get you noticed, and in many cases give you more authority/influence and team “membership” than people who do hold the official titles.

      but i dont recommend the gopher route at all. i think if a person builds his value in the community, he can then dictate his terms of involvement. if a person comes in with the intention of biding his time to then get higher up, i dont think it will happen. masjid politics are simply too volatile for that. plus its not an environment that will foster real trust.

      now let’s say a young corporate person starts showing up to every general body meeting, and politely starts raising specific issues and asking pointed questions – then even though the board may scoff and not entertain it, he will build his influence in the community because of the ideas he has. and once that reaches a tipping point, push will come to shove, and that person will be able to dictate his terms of involvement in the organization, knowing he’s got the community backing him.

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    • ibnabeeomar

      and if you’re a khateeb, you can always preach your phiosophy on how things SHOULD be in a “general” manner. it wont be long until people start asking you to take over stuff ;)

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  4. Jon G.

    When I was involved with my local Islamic school I found it helpful to have clear meeting objectives, agendas, and actionable items. Meetings should last no longer than 30 minutes. The key to productive meetings is to keep discussions task oriented. It’s not the time for group therapy.

    When we look at the Prophetic tradition, the haters were always around just as they continue to be today. This is just part of the human experience. We tend to recreate ourselves in our kids and the organizations we’re involved in and it’s only natural for folks to recreate their “back home” experiences. The key is to put aside your own ego and do what is best for the organization.

    Br. Nouman Ali Khan has a great series of videos on some of the problems Islamic organizations face; entitled Communication Catastrophe. One of the things he addresses is how to conduct meetings. It’s really worth making the time to watch it.

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  5. muslimfitforlife

    Jazaka Allahu Khair for the post. I have this book also. It was required reading at my company. It should be required reading at the masajid. To echo earlier posts, I have been to far too many meetings held in our community that lack professionalism. Unfortunately, the five points above is how too many masajid are ran. Great book summary.

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    • shirtman

      Great article man…I think the way to change the org. and masajid.. is for the indigenous american Muslims to start building our own Islamic Centers… and non profits..

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  6. UmmeSuleim

    Very keen obversations. JazakAllahu khairan for shedding light on this issue.

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  7. Secrecy

    Salaam ‘alaykum,

    This article is awesome mashaAllah.

    Personally, it also applies to all types of Islamic organisations and if you read in between the lines, you’ll pick up some great wisdoms in how to deal with people and get results.

    It also goes down to who is actually running the organisation and those people in power, if they have the attitude to improve and their team are motivated, ANYTHING is possble. InshaAllah.

    JazaakAllahu khayrun for the beneficial article, I hope you write some more on such topics akhi!

    I’ll pass this on to a lottt of people insha Allah and I hope they benefit as I have. :excited:

    wassalaam.

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  8. Abu Ibrahim

    Conflict is natural and beneficial in any organization. Being able to express, explore, and expunge different ideas will help bring about the best results, Inshallah. If we look at the most influential Muslims of all time, we will see that all of them had to deal with conflict at some point in their lives.

    But I don’t like the ideas I see in some of the comments where people seem to endorse getting involved in Islamic organizations for personal reasons; either for status or power. Our intentions should always be to please Allah.

    Alhamdulillah, in my short lifetime, I’ve always managed to be involved in some respect with the leadership of whatever community I belonged to, without lobbying for certain positions.

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  9. Quaid Saifee

    Assalamalikum

    This is an excellent article. In this age of Internet, one would think more and more masjid boards would be transparent in their dealings. One of the ways I think organizations can become more open is to post the meeting minutes and votes online.

    In these days of twitter and facebook, board members and other committee chairs must be required to blog about their activities for the masjid.

    About consensus, as it is said, Not everybody can have their way, but everybody need to have their say,

    Quaid

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  10. Hasan

    You forgot one more: 6. The desire for leadership. This can be seen when a leader and all his cronies become the office bearers of the organization, before it is even launched.

    The prophet once said “a pack of wolves setting upon a flock of sheep will not do more damage than the desire for leadership will have on a person’s faith (iman.)”

    Imam Jafar Sadiq once said ‘By Allah, we do not give leadership to anyone who desires it.”

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