Book Review: The Five Dysfunctions of a Team

Cover Photo by Amy Humphries on Unsplash

‘The Five Dysfunctions of a Team’ is a great book on leadership and team dynamics by Patrick Lencioni, a New York Times bestselling author, consultant and speaker. The book’s main offering is a simple list of five traits that commonly occur in dysfunctional teams, which Lencioni presents through a fictional story.

The story starts with the appointment of a new CEO, Kathryn Petersen, by the Silicon Valley startup’s Chairman in a last ditch effort to reverse the company’s performance troubles. This is despite the company having been hailed previously as a startup darling with plenty of funding and an all-star executive team.

“It had the most experienced - and expensive - executive team imaginable, a seemingly indestructible business plan, and more top-tier investors than any young company could hope for.”

Lencioni explains that all five dysfunctions are actually manifestations of natural human behaviour and are not inherently harmful, but can cause real damage when they occur in a team setting. Where damage is avoided, what results is mediocre team performance.

The book also covers the behaviours present in a team that is successfully avoiding the dysfunctional pitfalls, giving the reader an idea of what good and bad look like.  

My interpretation of the five dysfunctions, in the order they are presented in the book, are:

  1. Lack of Trust - which is driven by our need for invulnerability, demonstrated by how difficult it can be to talk openly about our weaknesses.
  2. Inattention to Results (the fifth one is introduced second, to keep you on your toes!) - which happens when individuals are more concerned with their own status and ego than winning as a team. This is often evidenced by a fuzzy idea of what the team’s desired results actually are.
  3. Fear of Conflict - evidenced by a false sense of harmony which is the result of team members being unwilling to have tough conversations and work through issues or disagreements.
  4. Lack of Commitment - which can happen when decisions aren’t made or are forced without agreement or buy-in. Almost as harmful is when decisions are made by committee because of dysfunction 3, leading to lukewarm commitment, no ownership and probably a very low risk-tolerance. In a startup, this results in about as much group vibe as a Covid lockdown garden party and a very low chance of moving any dial.
  5. Avoidance of Accountability - leading to low standards all around, making high-performers want to jump ship. In teams with high levels of accountability, Lencioni says that team members don’t hesitate to tell each other when their standards are too low and keep each other in check.

It’s a simple book full of simple ideas. I recently picked the book up again following workshops with a team experiencing some communication tensions. As with many things worth doing, the hardest part is staying committed to and consistently practicing the positive behaviours.

Pyramid of the 'Five Dysfunctions of a Team' with illustrations
The Five Dysfunctions, illustrated by me!

For me, the book is a handy anchor to come back to when I’m trying to bring about positive change in a team or organisational setting.

In no particular order, my favourite quotes from the book are:

“If everything is important, then nothing is”
“I will be encouraging conflict, driving for clear commitments, and expecting all of you to hold each other accountable. I will be calling out bad behaviour when I see it, and I’d like to see you doing the same.”
“If you could get all the people in an organisation rowing in the same direction, you could dominate any industry, in any market, against any competition, at any time”
“If you let profit be your only guide to results, you won’t be able to know how the team is doing until the season is almost over”

What I liked about the book

Easy to relate to

The main concepts in the book are introduced through a somewhat realistic and relatable story, rather than in an academic way. It’s an easy read and you get to know each of the characters’ personalities and backgrounds. The characteristics are presented in a way that makes it easy to identify them in yourself and others.

Also, the things that happen in the story such as the new CEO holding an offsite meeting are common enough in today’s workplace, especially in startups, which makes it more relatable.

Sense of humour

Lencioni uses humour often, throughout the story. There are instances where a little bit of light-heartedness helpfully dissipates what could have been a tense situation, demonstrating how humour is a necessary and useful communication tool. Plus, it makes the book more fun to read.

Thoughts I had, that I don’t necessarily have answers for

Do you have to have an offsite meeting?

In the fictional story, a lot of emphasis is put on the offsite meeting as a necessary conduit to the open and honest discussions. Whilst I agree that changing location, routine and/or context can be a great way to spur new discussion and change, I wonder what the best way to adapt the lessons from the story would be in a setting where an offsite is not practical. For example, with a fully remote team.

Workshops may be a tempting alternative; however, individual one-off workshops aren’t great on their own as they have a habit of falling short when it comes to creating lasting change. It is too easy to get sucked back into the day-to-day grind as soon as the workshop finishes.  

How do you apply this when you have no cash?

Somewhat related to the first point is the question of funding. Offsite meetings cost money and take a chunky amount of time. Also, it is reasonable to wonder if investing your effort in better teamwork is wise if you’re a cash-strapped startup with only a few months’ runway.

I suspect the answer depends on each individual situation; however, my instinct would be to say that the traits that make a team great are always worth investing in. The startup you’re currently working on building, or the team you’re working with, is unlikely to be your last. You can always do better next time. That said, it’s never a great idea to blow all your cash on a lush offsite meeting. That would be dumb.

What about culture?

Lastly, I believe some of the desired behaviours discussed to such as ‘extract and exploit the ideas of all team members’ and ‘ensure that poor performers feel pressure to improve’ need to be considered from a cultural and individual perspective to be applied effectively.

For example, if I was working with a cultural backdrop where it is frowned upon to criticise others, I wouldn’t go strong on encouraging team members to actively challenge each other’s ideas. Or, using a less extreme example, if I were faced with a team where active and lively debate is not common and could cause anxiety among team members, I would apply the concepts differently.

My key reflections and takeaways

Don’t just follow the motions

When reading books like this, it can be tempting to copy the motions in an effort to re-create the benefits. This is especially true with such a realistic story illustrating the author’s points. However, just following the motions (e.g. arranging an off-site and introducing the Five Dysfunctions Pyramid) is not likely to lead to the desired outcomes unless there is a full understanding of why the points are important and how they relate to your own behaviour and ways of working.

A poorly thought-through offsite is a very sad thing

I would recommend reflecting on the points made fully, internally, first before taking any action. Those who know me know how contrary this is to my modus operandi and yet, there is a time and place for everything. This is the time for self-reflection. Sitting and thinking, and then thinking some more.

Ask yourself, do I agree with this point? Do I put my beliefs into action all/ most/ some of the time? Why or why not? I urge you to really understand how you relate to each point first, before sharing it with others.

Think of ways to do better

If you’re reading the book and thinking ‘yes, I do that’, ‘yep, tick’, ‘yep, I never do that’; maybe stop and ask yourself what you’re trying to get out of this book. It shouldn’t be an exercise in self-congratulation.

Great teams take hard work - but are totally worth it

The biggest takeaway for me is the reinforced message that building a great team takes conscious and consistent effort by all team members.

It requires the guts and discipline to actively choose to have conversations that may be uncomfortable over silence. It needs each team member to be authentic and speak his or her mind, even if it might not be what people want to hear, whilst also, always putting one’s own interests and ego aside for the team’s gains. Difficult, but it does get easier with practice.

Real-life applications

In my work, I am frequently faced with situations where team members don’t agree and a decision needs to be made in the interest of the project or initiative progressing. What usually ensues is a messy mix of words said, thoughts unspoken, emotions and the inevitable passing of time.

This is made even more complex in virtual settings where all but two senses, hearing and sight, are smothered (and I can’t use my fantastic dog-like sense of smell).

If I navigate that well, I get to walk away with one decision, verbally and explicitly agreed by each member of the team, even if it isn't their preferred direction.

Obviously, that doesn’t always happen and when there are challenges, lessons like the ones in ‘The Five Dysfunctions of a Team’ help me to act in the best way for the team.

Who should read this book?

I recommend this book to anyone going into their first team management role. It’s also a great book for anyone interested in the dynamics of teamwork and working to build a great team - you don’t have to be a leader to lead.

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