Book summary: The five dysfunctions of a team

Teamwork is the ultimate competitive advantage

When I have left each role I have worked in when I leave I spend time reflecting on what was good about the team and environment and what was done poorly. These lists are often heavily skewed to the bad — negatives are easier to spot than positives.

Many of these things fall into a few themes: lack of clear direction and decision, low trust and individual rather than team victory.

The Five Dysfunctions of Team is written in two parts: the first and most substantive part is a fable describing the fictional company DecisionTech and the work the incoming CEO, Kathryn, has to do to build a highly functioning executive team.

The book goes to great lengths to describe a team obsessed with individual ego and how this feels to work with. It has many moments that will feel all to familiar for anyone who has worked on a less than stellar team.

Highly functioning teams require a five key things: trust in one another, willingness to engage in conflict around ideas, commitment to decisions and plans, holding each other accountable for delivering and focus on achievement of collective results. This sounds simple enough on the surface, however, achieving this requires a persistence and discipline that few teams can muster. Through lengthy and intentional actions by the fictional CEO, Kathryn, she is able to slowly bring her team around to these ideals.

What are the five dysfunctions?

In the book Lencioni describes Kathryn drawing a 5 layer pyramid and gradually populating it with the dysfunctions, and alongside the consequence of this.

She described the group of executives as the most political she has ever seen. Then goes on to describe politics both precisely and in a way which feels frighteningly familiar:

Politics is when people choose their words and actions based on how they want to react rather than based on what they really think

In the context of building and working a really effective team, trust is the confidence among team members that their peers’ intentions are good and that there is no reason to be protective or careful around the group.

Trust is built on vulnerability, exposing yourself in an often uncomfortable way. So many of us are taught explicitly and implicitly to avoid being vulnerable which in turn prevents us from building strong, trusted bonds with others.

Building trust through vulnerability isn’t instant. It happens through many, small moments through time. This includes:

  • Shared experiences over time
  • Multiple instances of follow through on commitments
  • Learning what is unique about individuals.

Role of the leader: to lead by example, showing vulnerability to create space for others to do the same.

Specific activities:

Personal histories activity: Everyone answers five, non-intrusive personal questions having to do with their backgrounds

  • Hometown
  • Number of kids in the family
  • Interesting childhood hobbies
  • Biggest challenge growing up
  • First job

Team effectiveness exercise: taking turns with each member of the team identify thesingle most important contribution each of person makes as well as the one area they must improve upon or eliminate for the good of the team.

All great relationships require productive conflict in order to grow

Conflict is a crucial part of an effective team. A team must have a willingness to argue effectively about an issue and then walk away with no collateral damage.

Ideological conflict is limited to concepts and ideas. It avoids personality-focused, mean-spirited attacks. This isn’t fighting or personal attacks but arguing constructively on the merits of different ideas.

Functional teams know that the only purpose of productive conflict is to produce the best possible solution in the shortest period of time.

Role of the leader: demonstrate restraint when their people engage in conflict and allow resolution to occur naturally.

Specific tools:

Mining: designate “miner of conflict” who extract buried disagreements within the team. Someone who is trusted and empowered to surface tensions in the team and ensure they get discussed to a resolution.

Lack of commitment within a team is extremely common. You know the scenario, get together for a meeting, talk around an issue for 60min and then everyone leaves deflated and at least frustrated. We haven’t committed to anything and there is no more clarity than before we started.

You are now floating around in an ambiguous world, each member of the team applying their own interpretation.

This happens for two main reasons:

  • Our desire for consensus — we don’t like making decisions which leave some of the team disagreeing.
  • Our need for certainty — we don’t like making decisions with uncertainty

A wrong decisions is far better than no decision

Role of the leader: to be comfortable with making a decision that may turn out to be wrong. To be comfortable to push the group for closure as well as sticking to the timeline of a decision that was set. To be comfortable with not reaching consensus.

Specific activities:

Cascading messages: at the end of any discussion on a decision spend a few minutes to recap the decision and the messages that will be delivered to the team more broadly. This both provides the same messages coming from different members of the team and refines commitment.

So once we have agreed on what we are doing and committed to these things it’s the responsibility of the whole team to hold each other accountable for behaviours which may hurt the team or prevent the team hitting goals.

The most effective and efficient means of maintaining high standards of performance on a team is peer pressure. One of the benefits is the reduction of the need for excessive bureaucracy around performance management and corrective action.

Role of the leader: in this case strong leaders often don’t leave room for team accountability by positioning themselves as the arbiter of accountability for all members on the team. Successful leaders do so by leaving space so that a culture of accountability can be created

Specific activities:

The activities here are simple, and likely sound familiar to anyone with formal management training — these are core skills that are drummed in during that training.

Publication of goals and standards: The enemy of accountability is ambiguity. To be as clear as possible on who needs to do what by when this information should be shared publicly. It is important to keep these agreements in the open so that they cannot be easily ignored and others on the team can keep each person accountable to them.

Simple and regular progress reviews: having plenty of regular avenues for feedback between peers is essential. This can be written, verbal or other feedback. Team mates should be upfront about how they feel others are performing to these stated goals and intentions.

Team rewards: performance rewards, wherever possible, should be tied to the team rather than the individual. There is a lot more incentive to keep your team mates accountable when it has direct impact on you!

Members of a team often care more about their own results and success than that of the team.

Any team should be driven by clear outcome-based goals. Successful teams should be driven by collective ego, the desire to win as a team, not as individuals.

Picture any sports team, the individuals on that team measure their outcomes by team wins. Each individual within that has their own performance goals and statistics, but no matter how good these are they won’t feel good hitting a personal best in a losing game.

Avoiding this dysfunction is about creating a team culture that feels the same as a sports team, where everyone is chasing the same thing: a clear, measurable win.

Role of the leader: it is the responsibility of the leader to set the tone for a focus on results. If the team sense the leader values other things they will take it as permission to do the same.

Specific activities:

Public declaration of results: teams who publicly commit to their intended success are more likely to follow through with the passion needed for that success.

Results-based rewards: put simply: tie peoples rewards, especially compensation, to the results they or their team achieves.

The five dysfunctions of teams was an easy, enjoyable and eyeopening read. The ‘fable’ format was extremely relatable and enjoyable. It was much easier to relate to the fairly abstract management lessons being discussed.

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