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Book Review: Five Dysfunctions of a Team

The Five Dysfunctions of a Team is a best-selling business book by Patrick Lencioni. Written as a “business fable”, the plot follows the trials and tribulations of a struggling senior management team trying to right itself.

And if you’re a product manager, you should read it right now.


Kup has his own interpretation of Lencioni’s message.
Image source: Transformers All Hail Megatron #5

The Set Up

The fable begins with the retired hero (aka, Kathryn Petersen, an old-school CEO with a knack for building teams) called back to complete one more impossible mission: To turnaround a failing technology company filled with rockstar executives who can’t work together.

The results of their dysfunction are everywhere: People are doing more blaming than problem solving, divisions are missing deadlines, morale is flagging, and the company’s position in the marketplace is steadily eroding.

To get the executive team working together, Petersen challenges them to address the five dysfunctions of a team, which she summarizes in this handy diagram…

Dysfunction #1: (Absence of) Trust

Big egos need to be right and to appear strong and smarter than everyone else at all times. In that kind of environment, trust is nearly impossible because nobody wants to admit weaknesses or to ask for help — or even offer help. People spend more time defending themselves than constructively solving problems.

In the fable, Petersen uses a Myers-Briggs analysis to get the team talking about their strengths and weaknesses. This shared experience enables them to start becoming more comfortable with one another and start building trust.

Building this foundational layer of trust enables them to tackle the next dysfunction…

Dysfunction #2: (Fear of) Conflict

All relationships require productive conflict to achieve optimal results. Teams that do not trust themselves cannot engage in productive conflict, which leads to dysfunction (eg, personal attacks, hiding true thoughts, maintaining artificial peace) and an over-reliance on internal politics.

To be successful, leaders in the organization need to encourage debate and remind everyone that conflict is a normal and necessary part of being a team. The key is to keep it focused and productive — and to model the behaviors you want to elicit from everyone else.

Dysfunction #3: (Lack of) Commitment

Productive teams make clear, confident decisions with everyone’s buy-in. Achieving true commitment is not possible unless everyone’s concerns have been heard. When team members can openly and honestly discuss their opinions about an issue — when they feel like they’ve been listened to — they’re more apt to get on board with a decision.

“The point here is that most reasonable people don’t have to get their way in a discussion. They just need to be heard, and to know that their input was considered and responded to.”

The focus is not on consensus; the leader needs to make sure all ideas are heard and considered so a decision can be made and bought into.

Dysfunction #4: (Avoidance of) Accountability

Trust leads to productive conflict. Productive conflict leads to firm commitment. Without commitment, without that buy-in, people won’t hold each other accountable.

The team needs to measure its progress and hold one another responsible for achieving results. And leaders need to make sure the team understands and agrees on what needs to get done, by whom, to what degree of quality, by what date and time.

Dysfunction #5: (Inattention to) Results

Functional teams place their collective results ahead of their own individual interests. When every team member makes the team’s results the priority, the team focuses on the results that really matter.

“Our job is to make the results that we need to achieve so clear to everyone in this room that no one would even consider doing something purely to enhance his or her individual status or ego. Because that would diminish our ability to achieve our collective goals. We would all lose.”

Effective leaders focus the team on team results; keep the team’s results visible and understandable at all times; and reward the behaviors that contribute to the team’s results.

Is this book worth your time?

My tolerance for business books is fairly low these days, so, in all honesty, one of the things that first attracted me to The Five Dysfunctions Of A Team was its short length (229 pages).

While the “fable” concept might sound like a gimmick, Lencioni employs it to great effect here: The narrative is compelling, the dialogue is (fairly) realistic, and several plot twists took me by surprise but made sense within the context of the story and the message Lencioni’s trying to impart.

As a product manager, as a leader in my organization, it’s become clear to me that building a team requires continuous investments of time and energy; it is, literally, a process that never stops. And the companies that sustain their advantage in the marketplace are often the ones that make teamwork a true priority.

Are the five dysfunctions themselves original and thought-provoking? Not particularly. However, the way Lencioni illustrates those ideas using the fable structure, then embellishes them with his own insights, is completely engrossing and grounded.

The Five Dysfunctions of a Team is a fast, compelling study on interpersonal dynamics at work, filled with practical ideas and sympathetic advice. I highly recommend it.

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