After reading his best-selling book The Five Temptations of a CEO, I picked up Patrick Lencioni’s The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable and its companion Field Guide and was not disappointed.  I have recommended the book to management teams and boards of directors, with both finding it insightful and challenging.  Like Temptations, Lencioni begins this book by taking us on a trip, this time to Silicon Valley, where a seasoned automotive industry CEO undertakes the challenge of turning around a financially challenged high-tech company.  When this CEO  arrives at the company, she finds a highly dysfunctional team in place.

Lencioni begins the discussion about overcoming the five dysfunctions of a team by asking two questions that should be asked BEFORE any team-building effort begins:

  1. Are we really a team?
  2. Are we ready for heavy lifting?

His definition of a team, “a relatively small number of people…that shares common goals as well as the rewards and responsibilities for achieving them” seems logical enough, but what I really liked was his overall approach.  He suggests that even if your group isn’t a team, start with being clear about who and what you are.  The heavy-lifting reference simply means that building a team, similar to a marriage or any other worthwhile relationship, takes a considerable investment of time and emotional energy.  These starting points lead the way into a definition of the five dysfunctions.

Dysfunction #1 is the absence of trust.  Lencioni’s definition of trust is one in which vulnerability is paramount.  Therefore, building a trusting relationship begins with showing personal vulnerability.  Within a team environment, trust can be initiated by a team exercise in which each member tells the other members some personal history that includes an important challenge that he or she overcame during childhood.  The reason is to reveal the “fundamental attribution error.”  Simply stated, there is a tendency to attribute (falsely) the negative behavior of others to their character while attributing our own negative behavior to the environment.  In other words, I do bad things because of the situation I’ve been placed in, while you do bad things because you are a bad person.  This personal-story exercise helps individuals understand each other at a more fundamental level by showing how each person became who he is, at least in some small way.  Lencioni’s second exercise deals with behavior profiling (he recommends the Myers Briggs Type Indicator—the MBTI—for various reasons) in order to “give team members an objective, reliable means for understanding and describing one another.”  This exercise is designed to facilitate discussion of strengths/weaknesses and begin to make it “safe,” at least in terms of constructive feedback.

Dysfunction #2 is fear of conflict.  While admittedly uncomfortable at times, overcoming fear of conflict is essential to maximize a team’s effectiveness.  Lencioni argues that the inevitability of discomfort is no reason to avoid conflict.  He describes a sort of conflict continuum in which the ideal conflict point lies directly midway between artificial harmony and mean-spirited personal attacks.  To engage in productive conflict, he advocates conflict profiling (MBTI and/or Thomas-Kilmann Instrument).  Profiling helps team members understand comfort levels and viewpoints regarding conflict.  Conflict norms must be discussed, negotiated, and made clear and available.  There are times when an effective leader must encourage productive conflict among members, especially if individuals are avoiding necessary, progressive conflict.

Dysfunction #3 is identified as a lack of commitment, which is best overcome by gaining buy-in and achieving clarity.  Buy-in is not to be confused with consensus, and in fact true commitment is about getting buy-in when all the team members don’t agree.  Clarity allows members to benefit from their commitment by removing assumptions and the accompanying frustrations.  Lencioni discusses two techniques to best overcome this third dysfunction.  First, commitment clarification deals with leaders asking: What exactly have we decided here today?  This ensures that everyone leaves a meeting with the same impressions.  Second, cascading communication demands that team members communicate these same impressions to the rest of the staff within 24 hours, again ensuring that everyone is on the same page.

Dysfunction #4 is the avoidance of accountability.  Lencioni contends that accountability is members’ willingness to remind each other when they are not living up the group’s agreed-upon standards.  This does not just involve the leader; peer-to-peer accountability is integral as well.  Interestingly, most leaders are willing to hold team members accountable for results, but not so much for behavioral issues.  Reluctance to hold others accountable for their behavior results in a lack of respect for leadership.  Lencioni’s exercise for establishing greater levels of accountability is for the team to hold others accountable by openly discussing each person’s (including the leader’s) most important quality that contributes to or derails the strength of the team.

Dysfunction #5 is identified as a team’s inattention to results.  The author suggests that self-preservation and self-interest make inattention a difficult handicap to overcome.  The solution lies in keeping the results observable, where members of the team can see them at all times (i.e., a visible scoreboard of some sort).  It doesn’t really matter how the results are measured, as long as the team has one or two items that it can consistently focus on and rally around.  Distractions include egos, career advancement and departmental priorities.  Key points for negating this dysfunction are avoiding the distractions and staying focused on clear, visible results.

Lencioni also addresses in-depth many common questions and obstacles to avoid.  In the accompanying Field Guide, he includes a host of exercises, schedules, definitions and references that can be tailored to facilitate the team-building process in any organization.  I found The Five Dysfunctions of a Team to be easy to read, full of practical ideas and examples that bring the points home.  Order the Field Guide along with the book if you want to apply solutions to the Five Dysfunctions evident in your team.