By Patrick Lencioni (2002)

Pages: 202, Final verdict: Should-read

What does it take to make a great team? No matter where you look, from heartened stories of sports teams winning against all odds to Marvel super-hero movies, a strong team is always depicted as the foundation for success.

Patrick Lencioni is an American writer of management books, having written about the eccentricities of CEOs, tackled the frustration of ineffective meetings and more. His books are written in an unusual style. The five dysfunctions of a team, his most-well know novel, follows the same genre.

Self-improvement meets Dan Brown

At first glance, it does not look like a business book. It is not built on an underlying premise backed by social studies done in fancy universities. Nor is it a memoir of the author's own experience in the subject. No, this is leadership fable, an original look at a classic theme. The five dysfunctions of a theme is a fiction story, where characters depict personality styles and behaviours of our own team members, from a self-centred executive who only cares about his achievements to a selfless colleague who is afraid of getting into a fight.

The plot of the story revolves around Catherine Peterson, the newly appointed CEO of a struggling tech company that has (almost) everything needed for success: a great product, state-of-the-art technology and "A" class people at its helm. What it does not have is a team. And that is the job Catherine was hired to do.

Running through about 200 pages, we followed Catherine's path as she works to build a cohesive leadership team. As she sets herself to do just that, through team retreats to changes in the exec team, we are exposed to the five aspects that can get in the way of building a longlasting successful team:

  • Absence of Trust: The first, and most important, trust is depicted as the foundation of real teamwork. And much like the physiological needs at Maslow's hierarchy, trust is paramount if you want to climb the steep hill from turning a group of people into a team. Here, trust is much more than believing you'll do what you are supposed to. It is not being afraid to show your vulnerabilities and weaknesses, leading to passionated unfiltered debate. Comes our second dysfunction, fear of conflict.
  • Fear of conflict: If players, colleagues or friends do not trust each other, they are not going to engage in an open constructive debate. And while that might not be that important when you're deciding where to go out to dinner, it becomes so in the business setting. And what is the symptom for a team afraid of conflict? Artificial harmony.
  • Lack of commitment: I've experienced first hand how difficult it is to get buy-in from the people at work. Patrick argues that lack of commitment comes down to ambiguity. And the cure, as Catherine goes on to explain her team, is a healthy dose of discussion: "When people don't unload their opinions and feel like they've been listened to, they won't really get on board."
  • Avoidance of accountability: Most of us are uncomfortable calling out on someone that works with us because he/she did not deliver what was agreed. This avoidance of interpersonal discomfort slowly escalates to a culture of low standards within the organization.
  • Inattention to results: A true team can only be formed when the results of the team are put first, ahead of individual achievements. Today, in a society that praises the myth of the "self-made millionaire", and as we've reviewed last week, ego is indeed the enemy.

None of this sound mind-shattering, and it is not supposed to. Being aware of the five dysfunctions is an easy endeavour and even trying them out with your teams can be done with little effort. The real impact though, and why "building a team is hard", comes from the disciplined and resilient use and mastery of this interrelated model, no matter how uncomfortable it might be.

“A fractured team is just like a broken arm or leg; fixing it is always painful, and sometimes you have to rebreak it to make it heal correctly. And the rebreak hurts a lot more than the initial break, because you have to do it on purpose” - Patrick Lencioni

Bottom Line

I finally picked up this book from my Kindle after the entertainment system at my seat on a long-haul flight was not working. It ended up being a blessing in disguise.

From the read several books on team leadership, working with peers and other of the same genre, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team is on my shortlist. Its writing style - a leadership fable - is a refreshing change from the typical self-improvement books in every bookshelf. Full of insights and learning moments for the reader, we are sucked into the team retreats Catherine organizes and reflect on our own lives, drawn by the character's behaviours, fears and anxieties.

This writing style is also its main drawback, as the narrative stays away from an in-depth look at any studies or author's experiences of what it takes to build a great team. Nevertheless, after the story of Catherine and her team, Patrick does continue the book with a more detailed explanation of the model, exercises for team diagnosis and suggestion to help us overcome the five dysfunctions.

All in all, its a great (short) book that I'd definitely recommend. As for the next book I'll pick up, let's wait and see what my next intercontinental flight holds..

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