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Synopsis

If you can get everyone in an organization to move in the same direction, you can dominate any industry, in any market, against any competition, anytime. But nearly every organization struggles with teams mired in organizational politics.

Patrick Lencioni, who has coached hundreds of CEOs and Fortune 500 companies' crews, presents a powerful model to overcome The Five Dysfunctions of a Team and build world-class teams.

For example, learn a story of a CEO who completely reorganized a broken executive team of a high-profile Silicon Valley firm, discover powerful insights and build world-class teams.

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Top 20 insights

  1. The first dysfunction is a lack of trust caused by team members' failure to understand and open up to each other. Great teams comfortably share weaknesses and skill deficiencies and ask for help. Trust allows the team to leverage each other's skills and focus on work without worry about motives.
  2. A team is political when its members act based on how others respond instead of based on their convictions. Politics is the result of ambiguity on collective goals, which makes it easy for members to focus on their individual success only.
  3. There are a few simple tools that can be used to build trust. Members can be asked to answer some non-intrusive personal questions that help the team establish a personal report. Similarly, leaders can ask everyone to identify the most significant contribution each member makes and suggest one area for improvement. Also, tools like the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator and behavioral preference profiles drive empathy in team members.
  4. Leaders must demonstrate vulnerability to create an environment that encourages trust. Artificial vulnerability will result in a loss of trust.
  5. The second dysfunction is a lack of conflict. Most executive teams try to avoid passionate debates and preserve pretended harmony. Teams that encourage healthy conflict resolve issues quickly, openly and with no residual feelings. Teams that avoid conflict build dangerous tension that might turn into back-channel personal attacks.
  6. Teams must distinguish between productive ideological conflict based on concepts and ideas and petty interpersonal politics based on personalities. While ideological conflict is often heated, members are confident that it's necessary to produce the best possible outcome.
  7. Many companies avoid conflict because they believe it wastes time and energy. However, the opposite is true. Teams that engage in healthy conflict quickly resolve issues while teams that try to avoid conflict repeatedly revisit the same issues without resolution.
  8. To foster productive conflict in discussions, a leader is asked to raise hidden disagreements and help team members work through issues. Those who are uncomfortable in conflict situations must be reminded that this is necessary. This act will help to reduce tension and boost confidence in the participants.
  9. While leaders instinctively wish to protect members from harm in difficult conversations, they must demonstrate restraint and allow members to develop conflict management skills.
  10. Lack of commitment is the third dysfunction, and the evidence of this is ambiguity. In groups without a culture of honest conflict, some team members keep quiet to preserve false harmony. During decisions, they feel as if they haven't been heard and don't wholeheartedly commit to the conversations.
  11. Commitment comes from clarity and buy-in. Great teams make clear decisions and move ahead with complete buy-in even from those who voted against the decision. Members need to be heard and see their ideas being genuinely considered. This creates a willingness to rally around any decision made by the group.
  12. Great teams commit to clear courses of action even when there is little assurance that the decision is right. Teams that don't commit to clear decisions create discord deeper in the ranks. Even small misalignment among executives usually results in instructions that cause clashes among employees.
  13. Simple tools to improve commitment include a review of critical decisions at the end of each meeting and an agreement on key deliverables. Clear deadlines for decisions help reduce ambiguity and improve commitment. Leaders must make final decisions despite uncertainty and push staff to close issues.
  14. The fourth dysfunction is the avoidance of accountability, and the sign of it is low-performance standards. Team members find it hard to hold their peers accountable. This causes relationships to deteriorate and group standards to erode. Great teams demonstrate respect for their peers.
  15. It's difficult to hold peers accountable because some of them may get defensive or appear intimidating. But members should respectfully push the person. The best way to maintain high-performance standards is peer pressure – nothing motivates people like the fear of not meeting the expectations of their teammates.
  16. Goals and behavioral standards must be made public. Team members find it easier to hold each other accountable if there's clarity on what the team needs to achieve and who owns deliverables.
  17. Create a periodic and structured feedback process to help members communicate constructive criticism of colleagues' performance. Leaders must enable the team to be the primary accountability mechanism. But when the team fails to uphold discipline, the leader must firmly step in to ensure that high standards are maintained.
  18. The fifth dysfunction is lack of attention to results, and the indicator of this is focus on status and ego. Teams that aren't focused on results stagnate and lose achievement-oriented employees. To prevent this, organizations must specify actionable collective goals with specific timelines. These goals should come before financial metrics and must make up the majority of near-term results.
  19. Meetings are the central arena of conflict. Great teams have meetings filled with conflict and don't schedule meetings if there is nothing to debate.
  20. Most executives have a stronger commitment to the teams they lead than to executive teams. This fosters loyalty and results in improved team performance. However, loyalty to the executive team must come first. Otherwise, it results in the fifth dysfunction where individual loyalties are put before team issues.
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Summary

The Five Dysfunctions of a Team is a leadership fable set in the real corporate world. The book brings out the dysfunctions that plague teams and provides practical tools to fix them by offering some messy scenarios with happy-endings.

A new CEO

Kathryn Petersen took over the reins of DecisionTech, a well-financed startup with an experienced executive team that, unfortunately, had tendencies of a toxic workplace. Discussions were slow and couldn't wait for meetings to end. After two weeks, Petersen announced a series of two-day executive retreats. Executives were appalled at being asked to take so much time off from real work. But after much resistance, they agreed.

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Peterson opened the meeting by reminding everyone that they are fortunate to have a more experienced team, higher cash reserves, better core technology and a more powerful board of directors than their competitors. She demonstrated that the company lagged behind in revenue because the team was dysfunctional and that DecisionTech's top priority was to set things right within.

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Five reasons why teams fail

Peterson went on to explain the five dysfunctions that cause teams to fail.

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The first dysfunction: lack of trust

Trust is the confidence among team members that their peers' intentions are good, and that there is no need to be reserved around them. This requires vulnerability. Great teams are unafraid to admit mistakes, share weaknesses and air concerns without fear of reprisal. This allows the team to leverage each other's skills and focus on work instead of being political. While trust is difficult, teams that lack trust waste enormous amounts of time managing group interactions, dread meetings and stay reluctant to taking risks or offering help. The morale of such a team is low, and turnover is high. The lack of healthy debates in DecisionTech meetings pointed to a lack of trust.

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Personal Questions and Behavioral Tests

Petersen began her first activity of the day, asking each member to answer five non-intrusive personal questions. One by one, members opened up about their childhood hobbies, their first job, hometown, etc. Nearly every answer contained something other members didn't know about their peers before. In just forty-five minutes, the team seemed to feel warmer and more at ease. The group spent the next few hours reviewing their behavioral tendencies based on diagnostic tests. Surprisingly, the warm conversations continued into the evening. Everyone participated except Michelle Bebe, who sat alone and rolled her eyes at remarks.

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Petersen began the second day by asking everyone to introspect on their biggest strength and biggest weakness that impacted DecisionTech. She volunteered first, and slowly others followed, each person raising the bar a bit higher, while Bebe shared shallow answers and made harsh comments.

The second dysfunction: fear of conflict

Peterson moved on to the second dysfunction. Without trust, groups will not engage in open and constructive conflict because they are desperate to preserve artificial harmony. A team that argues openly is far better than a group where members hold back opinions and concerns to preserve false harmony. These teams resolve issues quickly and entirely and emerge from heated debates with no residual feelings. Ironically, teams that avoid conflict end up building dangerous tension. It's important to differentiate productive ideological conflict based on concepts and ideas from interpersonal politics that is usually personality-focused and mean-spirited. While ideological conflict might involve passion and frustration, the members know that the only purpose is to produce the best possible solution.

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The third dysfunction: lack of commitment

Buy-in and clarity in decision-making are essential for fostering commitment. Without a culture of honest conflict, people keep quiet and build resentment. The goal of conflict is not to achieve consensus. Most reasonable people want to just be heard and feel that their opinion was considered. This makes them buy-in to the group decision even when they voted against it. Great teams make clear decisions, even when there is high ambiguity. Executive teams must be completely aligned on even the smallest details. Small gaps between executives become chasms when they reach employees.

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The fourth dysfunction: avoidance of accountability

The evidence of this dysfunction is tolerating low standards of performance from team members. Only teams that achieve a complete buy-in will attempt to hold each other accountable. This is still difficult because challenging peers is problematic, and people wish to avoid discomfort. But lack of accountability only causes the relationship to deteriorate and the group standards to erode. Great teams improve personal relationships by holding each other accountable. The best way to maintain high standards of performance is peer pressure.

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The final dysfunction: inattention to results

This is the tendency of members to seek individual attention at the expense of collective results. The indicator of this is status and ego issues in teams. Peterson made it clear that her role was to create the best team possible and not merely improve the careers of individual executives. This doesn't mean that team members should not have egos. Their egos must be tied to the clear result of making an organization win. The teams that figure out how to do this have a superior advantage over groups of individually gifted players. Organizations do this by creating a clear definition of collective success. This goal must not be financial and should be tied to something the organization does daily. Lack of clarity about collective goals makes the atmosphere political. A group is political when people choose words and actions based on how they want others to react instead of acting based on what they believe.

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The arena of conflict

Meetings are the central arena of conflict. Petersen emphasized that the ability to engage in unfiltered debates will determine DecisionTech's future even more than its products or partnerships. She assured them that, from now on, every meeting would be loaded with conflict, and if there was nothing to debate, meetings would be canceled. In the next two hours, the DecisionTech team applied this step by deciding their single overarching goal for the year.

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Some members said the focus must be on growing market share. Martin Gilmore, the Chief Technologist, batted for product improvement. Peterson urged others to challenge these arguments. After a debate, the group seemed to converge on gaining marquee customers as their overarching goal. Petersen then asked them to quantify the goal. The group's answers ranged from 10 to 30. Petersen closed the conversation by setting the target as 18 new customers. Over the next hour, they drilled down to analyze what marketing, finance, engineering etc. departments needed to do to achieve this goal. For the first time, the DecisionTech team had a vigorous debate in a meeting and agreed on an actionable plan.

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Destructive behavior

Within days of the offsite, the office atmosphere rapidly returned to the old normal. Nick Farrell, the Chief Operating Officer, had called a meeting to discuss a potential acquisition. Most members were skeptical. When Petersen reminded them that Bebe should have been there, Farrell sarcastically said she would add absolutely no value. Petersen held her patience. She continued and expressed her concern that a new acquisition would exacerbate team politics. Farrell responded harshly, telling Petersen that she had "no clue" about business. Petersen knew she had to call out this destructive behavior. She asked the group to leave her and Farrell alone.

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Petersen calmly told Farrell that he had to take issues with teammates to the person concerned or herself. Farrell responded by arguing that he had nothing to do in DecisionTech. Kathryn interrupted to ask if the acquisition was about Farrell and not DecisionTech. Farrell confessed to feeling completely underutilized, moving his family halfway across the country and watching helplessly as his peers were messing up the company. Petersen asked him point-blank to focus on what is important to him: helping the team win or growing his career. Farrell left the room.

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At the afternoon staff meeting, Farrell apologized for insulting Bebe and confessed that his motivation behind the deal was more about his feeling of being underutilized at DecisionTech. He humbly asked for help to find a way to contribute more. While the team was digesting Farrell's words, Petersen made an announcement. Their head of sales had quit the previous night. Bebe reminded everyone that Farrell had previously led a sales team. Jeff Shanley, the head of Business Development, seconded this statement, and after a moment of hesitation, Farrell agreed.

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Reorganizing resources

At the second offsite meeting, an uncomfortable question was raised. Was the DecisionTech team putting their resources in the right place to achieve their overarching goal? Gilmore strongly argued that investment in technology is crucial for a product company. Jan Mersino, the Chief Financial officer, appreciated his product focus and gently invited Gilmore to explore the best distribution of resources for achieving the collective goal. At Petersen's encouragement, the team spent the next two hours vigorously discussing the question. Everyone changed their stances multiple times. Finally, Shanley suggested cutting off one future product line and delaying another by six months. The engineers could be retrained and deployed to assist sales reps with product demonstrations. Within minutes, there was a consensus, and a timeline for implementation was drawn up. The group was now prioritizing the collective goal enough to downsize their own departments.

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Another member leaves

During the post-lunch meeting, Farrell requested everyone to block dates for a two-day training session for salespeople. Bebe was incredulous and sarcastically asked everyone to attend her product marketing meeting. Later, she smugly shared finished copies of product brochures. While they were high-quality, Farrell was disappointed because his salespeople who were doing customer research were not consulted. Bebe made it clear that she didn't think this was necessary. Petersen knew Bebe was having a destructive influence and had to go. She dismissed the meeting and asked Bebe to stay back. Petersen took a deep breath and told Bebe that she was not a good fit for the team – she didn't respect her colleagues, didn't open up to them and had a demotivating impact on everyone. After a showdown, Bebe left. DecisionTech had lost both its heads of sales and marketing within a month.

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Handling individual success

Everyone was shocked. Some praised Bebe's quality of work. Others wondered if they were next. Petersen responded by narrating a story about her early career where she managed a small department of financial analysts. Fred worked harder than other analysts. But no one could stand him. Peterson didn't criticize her top performer. The team output began to slide, and morale depleted rapidly. But Petersen promoted Fred for his individual contribution.

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Within weeks, three of her seven analysts quit, and the department fell into chaos. Petersen's manager fired her. When Fred quit a few weeks later, performance improved dramatically even though the team had fewer analysts. It was not Fred's behavior but Petersen's tolerance of his behavior that cost her the team. Petersen concluded by saying that she let Bebe go because she didn't want to lose the rest of DecisionTech's current employees. Everyone seemed to understand.

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Turnaround

Over the next two weeks, Petersen worked hard with the team on their behavior. This time, everyone seemed to share a sense of collective purpose. At the final offsite meeting, people felt they had moved forward as a team. At the meetings, the teams worked together in a spirit of cooperation and healthy conflict. During breaks, they spent time with each other. Over the next year, the company sales grew dramatically, and DecisionTech met its revenue goals for three out of four quarters. The staff had finally become a team.

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A toolkit to handle the five dysfunctions

Here are the toolkit and behavioral model that Petersen deployed to effectively handle each of the five dysfunctions.

Dysfunction 1: absence of trust

  • Personal Histories – A quick 30-minute personal histories exercise, which involves members answering a few non-intrusive personal questions and helps team members connect on a deeper level.
  • Single Most Important Contribution – Ask team members to identify the single most important contribution their peers make to the team and one area they need to improve on. Members share their responses, focusing on one person at a time. Begin with the team leader.
  • Personality Styles and Behavioral Preference Profiles – Tools like the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator are highly effective in enabling team members to have more empathy for each other. These tools are non-judgemental and based on research. They require a consultant and take about four hours.
  • Follow up – While these tools have a significant short-term impact, they have to be accompanied by regular follow-ups. Atrophy can lead to erosion of trust in strong teams.
  • Role of the leader – To build trust, a leader must demonstrate vulnerability first. It requires risking losing face in front of the team and creating an environment that doesn't punish vulnerability. Feigning vulnerability is one of the easiest ways to lose trust.
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Dysfunction 2: fear of conflict

The first step is acknowledging that conflict is productive. As long as some members believe that conflict is unnecessary, there is little chance it will occur.

  • Mining – A member assumes the role of "miner of conflict" in discussions to surface buried disagreements and help team members work through these issues.
  • Real-time Permission – Members have to coach each other to not retreat from healthy debate. A simple way to this is to recognize when someone is uncomfortable and remind them that what they are doing is necessary. It is a remarkably effective technique for draining tension in a productive and challenging exchange that gives participants the confidence to continue. Repeat the same message at the end of the meeting.
  • Role of the Leader – Leaders feel a need to protect members from harm, which often results in premature interruption of disagreements without allowing members to develop conflict management skills. Leaders must demonstrate restraint and allow for a resolution to occur naturally.
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Dysfunction 3: lack of commitment

  • Cascading Messaging – Review key decisions at the end of every meeting and agree on what needs to be communicated. This ensures clarity on key actionables to be communicated and things to be kept confidential.
  • Set Deadlines – Set clear deadlines according to which decisions will be made and firmly stick to them to reduce ambiguity and improve commitment.
  • Role of the Leader – Leaders must be comfortable making decisions that turn out to be wrong. They must continuously push people towards the closure of issues and adherence to schedules.
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Dysfunction 4: avoiding accountability

  • Make goals and standards public – It's easier for members to hold each other accountable if it's clear what the team needs to achieve and who needs to deliver to succeed. Goals and behavioral standards must be made public.
  • Simple and Regular Progress Reviews – Establishing a structured feedback process is necessary to help team members regularly communicate how they feel to their teammates.
  • Role of the Leader – The leader must step back and allow the team to be the primary accountability mechanism. However, on rare occasions, when the team's discipline fails, the leader must step in.
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Dysfunction 5: inattention to results

  • Public Declaration of Results – Teams that declare specific results they plan to achieve will likely work more passionately to achieve them.
  • Results-Based Rewards – Tying rewards to results is an effective way to ensure that team members focus on them. While it's important not to rely on incentives solely, teams must guard against rewarding those who "tried hard."
  • Role of the Leader – The leader must set the tone to focus on results as team members will closely model their behavior. They must be objective and reserve rewards and recognition for those who make real contributions to the group goals. Teamwork ultimately comes down to practicing in a small set of principles over a long period of time. Success doesn't come from sophisticated theory but rather from embracing common sense with uncommon levels of discipline and perseverance.
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