The first part of this book concerns an experienced CEO called Kathryn, who is brought in to fix a software company. Agonisingly, she turns around its dysfunctional leadership team, its decision-making, and its results. The second part unceremoniously picks apart the desiccated carcass of the tale, adding worksheets and teaching material.
Pyramids as diagrammatic aids are troublesome at the best of times, as it’s never certain from first glance what the illustrator wants to say about the hierarchy of information. Do we head from base to summit, as one might climb a real pyramid, or is our eye supposed to scan from apex to base, starting with the smallest stage to tackle ever larger ones? How important are the middle sections? How do the tiers interrelate? The Five Dysfunctions themselves are depicted as a pyramid. Thus the only graphical aid in the book requires the whole text to explain it.
Never mind. The core message is that great teams argue, all the time. They argue to determine the company’s goals; they argue to decide how money and time is spent; ideally, they argue without ego. Teams that hold meetings where no conflict happens hold very boring meetings, where nothing is decided, and people zone out, dumbly acquiesce, or cower in fear. Lencioni says that the most fundamental dysfunction is an absence of trust. Problems aired in company meetings matter to everybody, and everybody has a different perspective of what’s important and why, so meetings should be dramatic: full of tension, disagreement and discussion.
Trust is thus drawn at the base of the pyramid. This is the first place you visit when fixing a team, and the thing that must be right before anything else can be addressed. Every member of the team has to trust the others. To invite disagreement, they must allow themselves to be vulnerable to criticism and counter-argument without their openness being abused by ad-hominem attacks or disingenuous political manoeuvring, and this requires responsible facilitation. The antithesis of trust is invulnerability: if you don’t argue, you won’t ever lose.
Absence of trust / Invulnerability
Without complete trust, there cannot be honest conflict. The next stage of the pyramid concerns unfiltered conflict. In a supportive and respectful environment, ideas are primal, truth wins, and it doesn’t matter who has volunteered a suggestion, only how appropriate and useful it is. Conversely, in places where a person can be shouted down for dissent without an adequate counter-argument, there will be people who feel they are being ignored for political reasons. They will not buy into the eventual decision.
Fear of conflict / Artificial harmony
The result of hours of conflict and resolution is a plan that the whole team can commit to. If there isn’t universal agreement, some people will not contribute sufficiently to the plan, so the overall mission of the company will not be coherent or complete.
Lack of commitment / Ambiguity
Commitment to a plan then leads to responsibility to deliver that plan. This means maintaining high standards throughout the whole team, and yet more conflict: holding team members to account if they miss targets, ignore work, or get distracted by other goals.
Avoidance of accountability / Low standards
People may be members of many teams, while also attending to their personal ambitions. One of these teams must come first. If you’re on the leadership team, this your first team. Maintaining trust and confidentiality in this team is paramount because it’s how a company succeeds. It’s important that your team can expect you to work towards the collective goal, that conflict will be handled with discretion, and that the whole team can get on your case if you don’t perform.
While it’s easier to let people pursue individual, ego-led projects than holding them to account when they fail to deliver collective goals, it’s the wrong thing to do. You accept such attitudes at your peril.
Inattention to results / Status and ego
These problems are simple to state but, as we see in other books, it’s not always possible to dismantle political structures that preserve internal truces. Sometimes teams cannot be made to work like this without replacing parts of them, or forcing them to change in the face of an external crisis.