Book Depository: The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni

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 clear from a 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 it from apex to base as a page of text, the tiny top broadening to weightier things? How do the middle 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 a company’s goals; they argue to decide how money and time is spent; ideally, they argue without ego. Teams that hold meetings without conflict hold meetings without consequence, 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. Everybody has a different perspective of what’s important and why, so meetings should be dramatic: full of tension, disagreement, fresh perspectives, and negotiation.

This being a bottom-up pyramid, trust is drawn at the base. This is the first step in fixing a team: it is on trust that everything else rests. 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 personal attacks or political plays, and this requires good facilitation. The antithesis of trust is invulnerability: if you don’t argue, you won’t ever lose, but you’ll have to sit through a lot of lousy meetings.

Absence of trust / Invulnerability

Without complete trust, there cannot be authentic, game-free argument. 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 a real counter-argument, there will be people who feel they are being neutralised for political reasons. They will not buy into the eventual decision, and may decide to strike out alone.

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. Argument airs the rationale behind a decision, which allows people to understand and commit.

Lack of commitment / Ambiguity

Commitment to a plan then leads to responsibility to deliver it. This means maintaining high standards throughout the team, and leads to other necessary conflicts: 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 team always comes first. If you’re on the leadership team, that’s your first team. Maintaining trust and confidentiality in your first team is paramount because it’s how a company succeeds. It’s important that you work towards the collective goal, that conflict will be handled with discretion, and that the team can call you out 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.

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