Transforming Teams

The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni. Jossey-Bass: San Francisco, CA (2002). 228 + ix pages. US$24.95 (hardback).

Do you ever struggle to get alignment on a team? Do you ever wonder why teams get bogged down and cannot seem to move forward? Do you ever wonder what makes your colleagues “tick”?  If so, Patrick Lencioni’s classic book, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, might just be for you.

Since it was released over a decade ago, Lencioni’s classic text has been translated into training seminars and team-building workshops. Yet, reading this leadership fable helps any new leader identify opportunities for improvement in his/her teams. The book is written in a novel format but captures lessons on team interactions for which we all need to learn and to refresh our skills.

Strong teams are built on trust

The crux of the story centers on a fictional executive team. The company has brought in a new (but experienced) leader named Kathryn. While at first, she didn’t seem to fit the organizational culture — she was “old school” and Decision Tech is a decidedly modern start-up — Kathryn is able to turn around the company and drive profitability. The secret to her success is team-building.

As we follow this fictitious team through a series of meetings and workshops, we learn about barriers to team performance and how to overcome them. The first dysfunction is a lack of trust. Kathryn’s team goes through some stormy moments as they seek to build trust. Team members have to learn to be vulnerable and to show both personal and professional joys (and frustrations) in a constructive way in order to be able to trust one another. A great way to get started is to share something about your family as a child — how many siblings and in what order.

Accepting conflict and commitment

The next team dysfunction is a fear of conflict. Many professionals fall into this trap as we try to avoid uncomfortable situations and emotions. Not all conflict, however, is bad, and as chemical engineers, we can learn to voice different perspectives in order to come to a better overall solution. Teams that fear conflict often fail to generate creative and innovative ideas as well. The goal is to learn to share different opinions without vested emotional attachment.

A fear of conflict leads to a fear of commitment. Without a healthy discussion of alternatives, team members cannot and do not commit to a decision. If the boss dictates a decision, it often has little support. Ensuring that all opinions are voiced and evaluated will help a team become universally focused and committed to a common set of goals and objectives.

Of course, if team member don't trust one another and have only lukewarm commitment to goals and objectives, the team will also suffer from a lack of accountability. It’s easy to pass off task responsibility if there is a lack of consensus or free-flowing exchange of ideas. Teams can improve accountability by quickly discussing problems and ensuring appropriate training for low performers. Lencioni also recommends a reduction in bureaucracy, which can be used as a shield, to overcome avoiding accountability.

Maintaining focus

Finally, dysfunctional teams often lose track of their purpose as measured in results. Businesses are in business to make money. Chemical engineering teams are assembled to solve production and quality issues. The team must maintain a laser-focus on the results or all else is for naught. Continuous focus on the purpose and a common understanding of a team’s expected results are a key points of communication for any team leader.

The Five Dysfunctions of a Team is a great book to read for any new team leader or manager. It’s also a good reference for any leader struggling with an underperforming team, regardless of his/her years of experience. The only significant shortcoming of Lencioni’s approach is advice for virtual or dispersed team leaders. Team leaders for dispersed teams need a few additional and varied skills, such as initiation and structure, communication, meeting and protocols, knowledge management, and task-oriented leadership. Yet even with this gap, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team is a terrific guide to share among team members and leaders to improve team performance. Working through the book together — as a team — is a great team-building activity on its own. 

What is the biggest challenge you facing a team that you lead?