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May 2012


Overcoming the Five Dysfunctions of a Team


by Patrick Lencioni (Jossey-Bass, 2005)


What are the big take-aways?


In this “field guide for leaders, managers and facilitators,” Lencioni (author of the popular Five Dysfunctions of a Team corporate fable and model) offers two predicate questions before proceeding with the blueprint he offers for team-building. They are: “Are we really a team?” and “Are we ready for heavy lifting?” I do not think the importance of these two questions can be overstated, especially the latter. In my experience, it’s particularly critical for the team leader to role-model exquisitely the “heavy lifting” – for long haul – he or she expects from the rest of the team, or else the team risks more than underperformance: a team without committed leader can do serious damage to an organization.


On page 9, Lencioni defines a team as:


…a relatively small number of people (anywhere from three to twelve) that shares common goals as well as the rewards and responsibilities for achieving them. Team members readily set aside their individual or personal needs for the greater good of the group.


Lencioni asserts, as he did in the original Five Dysfunctions book, that the same common elements are required for any team to succeed: (1) trust; (2) the ability to engage in healthy conflict; (3) commitment to decisions; (4) accountability; and (5) attention to results. He identifies the team dynamics that typically cause dysfunctional behavior and that sabotage results, and then offers several group exercises and communication models which – in his experience – effectively address them.


Why did I like it?


The simplicity of Lencioni’s premise, and the accessibility of the techniques he offers, are great; I like the fact that his suggested team-building activities are use-able by anyone, not just professional facilitators. That said, I also agree with his observation that when team-members facilitate their own meetings and retreats, they aren’t able to fully participate within their team-member roles, which can be necessary to the ultimate success of certain kinds of meetings. I also generally enjoy Lencioni’s easy-going, conversational tone and his sense of humor. I’m a little baffled by the prevalence, throughout the book, of negative language and issue-framing even though the author’s premises are quite positive. (One explanation for this might be that, despite the simplicity of the concepts Lencioni presents, achieving them can be much more challenging and time-consuming than many optimistic and/or time-pressured team leaders anticipate.)


In what situations would this be useful?


Overcoming the Five Dysfunctions of a Team would be a terrific resource to start with for any leader who wants to learn the basics of team dynamics. A sophisticated leader who has significant experience with building effective teams and running effective group processes will gain greater insight from other resources (such as a sharp coach or consultant, or a more hard-core and academic workbook like Ronald Heifetz et al.’s The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organization and the World, published by Harvard Business Press, 2009).


Reasons that relatively inexperienced leaders might be drawn to learn more about building and maintaining effective teamwork could include: (1) doing research before creating a new team; (2) evidence – or perhaps just a nagging feeling – that a new team is not gelling; or (3) awareness that a long-standing team (even one with a good track record) is underperforming or fraying at the edges. This book would also help self-starting team members to diagnose where on the “pyramid” of team-building their teams could learn to be more functional, and give them tools to try. A special segment of the book contains: a guide and timeline for jump-starting team traction in three months; a team effectiveness assessment instrument; group exercises for off-site retreats; conflict and communication models; and suggestions for achieving commitment, accountability and results. (Again, for an experienced leader or facilitator, these tools may seem somewhat facile or obvious. Also, for a high-stakes team-performance issue, a deeper and more customized process might be needed to provide sufficient intervention, especially where the need to establish trust remains the core “dysfunction.”)


What other resources might “pair” well with it?


Of course, Lencioni’s original book, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team (a fictional corporate fable, combined with an in-depth discussion of Lencioni’s team-building model), would pair well with this “field guide” before, after or during its use. Also, another good resource is Building Better Teams, a recent collection of articles from the Harvard Business Review (2011). The leadership workbook I would recommend for a leader with some experience who wants to intersect his or her individual leadership development with team building is Kevin Cashman’s Leadership from the Inside Out (previously reviewed in the Leadership Library).


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