Monday, August 23, 2010

The Five Dysfunctions of a Team

There is an entire genre of business books which I refer to as “business fables.” Perhaps the most well-known among them is “The One-Minute Manager,” by Spencer Johnson (1), but not far behind is Patrick Lencioni’s “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team.” (2) I always approach these types of book with my skeptical eye well open, but each time I am confronted with a book that offers me insights into working in a collegial environment, and in the case of Lencioni’s book, I took some heart in the message his book extends.

Lencioni’s book relates the story of the appointment of Kathryn Peterson as new CEO for Decision Tech. Ms. Peterson does not come from the industry in which Decision Tech competes, and she was in semi-retirement when she was recruited for the position by the Chairman of the Board for the company. Her main action during her first year on the job is to attempt to unite her senior executive team, all highly competent individuals who are unable to work together effectively. Her decision and actions are described as she moves her company forward against some very real odds. These actions are placed into the context of resolving known dysfunctions, the five of which are indicated by the title. They are not obvious.

Dysfunction 1: Absence of trust. Lencioni notes that trust is at the heart of a functioning team, but trust is not simply believing that others mean to do well. Rather, trust here centers on the idea that given that we know others mean to do well, we need not be careful around members of our team. We must become vulnerable when around each other and be confident that our vulnerabilities will not be used against us- for we each have such vulnerabilities. In such fashion we stop being political with one another, stop subtley seeking position, and work together for the common good. Otherwise, behaviors too often will influence the actions that are taken and the discussions that occur.

Dysfunction 2: Fear of conflict. We need productive conflict to be able to grow. But, too often conflict is seen as undesirable in work settings, and therefore deep discussions on issues are avoided- a “go along to get along” kind of thinking. Now, conflict here does not refer to destructive fighting or personal politics; it refers to productive ideological debate. Sometimes conflict is avoided in order to avoid hurting others’ feelings, but if we note the first dysfunction, that of trust, this problem disappears.

Dysfunction 3: Lack of commitment. Lencioni notes that commitment is a function of clarity and buy-in. If we achieve buy-in from all members, clear and timely decisions will be made. And Lencioni further notes that the two main causes of lack of commitment are (surprisingly), a desire for consensus and a need for certainty. Consensus is, to me, often a way of reducing an issue to the least-common denominator- we all agree, but no one gets what they really want. It is better that we make a decision, even one that we might not all agree with, knowing that our thoughts have been heard, appreciated and considered. And once a decision is made- where we now have certainty, at least with regard to direction, we can unite behind that certainty. We never have full information and often make decisions without knowing the best direction in which to move, but once a decision is made, we move with it.

Dysfunction 4: Avoidance of accountability. This refers to the willingness of team members to call their peers on performance or behaviors that can hurt the team. We don’t like to do this; all too often we want to be liked rather than respected, so we allow behaviors from people that we know are damaging because it is never fun to call them to account for those behaviors. We don’t hold others accountable, because conflict avoidance is easier. But peer pressure can exert such influence as well.

Dysfunction 5: Inattention to results. This refers to the tendency of team members to care about something other than the collective goals of the group: their own personal advancement, rewards, etc., and not the objective for which the team exists. Lencioni notes the influence of these factors: (1) Team status: for some, being on the team is a status reward in and of itself, and therefore the actual results may not be important to some people, since being on the team is the reward. (2) Individual status: where people focus on advancing their own positions in the organization at the expense of the team goal. We need to focus on the team results, for that is what will take the organization forward.

It is an interesting and informative group and one that has led me to think over its message. For that reason, I do recommend it, and it is a text that can be read in a brief period of time, but that has a message I think will resonate with you.

1. Johnson S. The one-minute manager. New York, William Morrow and Company, 1981
2. Lencioni P. The five dysfunctions of a team. San Francisco, CA; Jossey-Bass, 2002

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