I was recently asked to run a team-building workshop based on the 2002 book, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. Let me summarise what author Patrick Lencioni laid out in his gripping fable about how Kathryn Petersen, DecisionTech’s newly installed CEO, faced the ultimate leadership crisis: uniting a team in such disarray that it threatened to bring down the entire company.
For most of the book it is uncertain as to whether she would succeed, but her experience from elsewhere allowed her to work with the awkward set of characters who made up the senior management team, and against all odds the company survived.
Lencioni is of the view that teams are inherently dysfunctional, made up of imperfect individuals who suffer from inflated egos and pursue selfish goals. Here’s how the book opens: “Not finance. Not strategy. Not technology. It is teamwork that remains the ultimate competitive advantage, both because it is so powerful and so rare.”
I’ll comment later on that view, but let me continue with his valid conclusion that strong and deliberate steps must be taken to facilitate teamwork. The fictional book shows how a skilled team leader can do a great deal to make their team effective, and it takes us through Kathryn’s manoeuvres to rescue the dysfunctional group of characters the board had hired her to sort out.
Through his story, Lencioni reveals the five dysfunctions which go to the heart of why teams struggle so badly. At the base of his pyramid of dysfunctions lies the absence of trust, which prevents team members from showing vulnerability within their group.
In the context of building a team, trust enables team members to be confident that their peers’ intentions are good, and that there is no reason to be protective or careful around the group. Teammates must become comfortable being vulnerable with one another.
Above mistrust comes fear of conflict, where those involved seek artificial harmony over constructive, passionate debate. Next, and again as a result of the lower dysfunction, is lack of commitment, merely pretending to buy in to group decisions, thereby creating ambiguity and lack of clarity.
All this sees team members avoid holding each other accountable, with low standards the consequence. And finally there’s lack of focus on results, as status and ego interfere with harmonised action.
To conclude, therefore, Lencioni urges us to find people who can demonstrate trust, engage in conflict, commit to group decisions, hold their peers accountable, and focus on the results of the team and not on own egos.
While the book is certainly exciting to read, full of breakthroughs and setbacks, I emerged less than convinced by Lencioni’s pessimistic view of human nature, and I also had reservations about his exclusive focus on overcoming the negative dysfunctions while insufficiently nurturing their positive counterparts.
Lencioni has his CEO relish conflict as a means of resolving issues, and while where there are conflicts they should indeed not be avoided, I am not convinced that she need have taken her team on such a painful journey.
Indeed in my workshop I had the team focus on how to build on the positive aspects within their team of the five functions of trust, dealing with conflict, commitment, accountability and focus on results.
It’s a great quintet of team factors, but my approach of working with “Appreciative Inquiry” would have me guide Kathryne differently. Also, my experience is different from Lencioni’s in that I have not found teamwork to be “so rare”.
However, I strongly recommend that you read the book, since it will stimulate you – as it did me – to reflect deeply on how people behave and what drives them, and then to assess whether the approach Lencioni advocates is the one you as a leader would feel is the one to adopt. It’s a book you won’t want to put down.
Before the workshop, the team members were also invited to watch a TED talk by Harvard Professor Amy Edmonson that nicely complemented the Lencioni book.
Here’s the link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LhoLuui9gX8 The essence of her talk was that where there is complexity, uncertainty and interdependence, one should promote curiosity and experimentation, accept fallibility, and so deliver psychological safety. Sounds like good advice.