The 5 Dysfunctions of a Team: Book Summary

If something feels a bit "off" with how your team works together, The 5 Dysfunctions of a Team is the book for you. Our summary will help you get to the bottom of those tricky interpersonal dynamics before they escalate.
Natalia Rossingol

What would you call a person who tries to save a Silicon Valley company from collapse, giving the boss’s position to an old-school, blue-collarish executive with no real high-tech experience who, on top of it, is fifty-seven years old (oh my God) and, what’s even worse, a woman? Maybe the word you’re looking for is extravagant or desperate, or just out of his mind. But before you start judging the poor guy, just know that the person he chose had great team-building skills… and you know, sometimes that’s enough to keep the company afloat.

“The Five Dysfunctions of a Team” by Patrick Lencioni is not a typical book about management. Lencioni, founder and president of a management consulting firm specializing in team development and organizational health, decided to be creative and share his ideas in a fictional story. In a nutshell, the story tells about the efforts of Kathryn Petersen to create a healthy environment in fictional DecisionTech. As the plot unfolds, she tells her executives about the 5 Dysfunctions of a Team Model, saying that these dysfunctions are the reason why the team fails.  

Represented graphically, the Five Dysfunctions Model looks like a five-level pyramid. Like in any pyramid, the levels do not exist separately from each other; Kathryn explains that they are interconnected, and each dysfunction directly impacts the one above it. Next to the levels, she writes a word that serves as an evidence of a particular dysfunction. 

Besides the fictional part, Lencioni also organizes and summarizes his ideas in the theoretical part of the book, where he also provides an assessment tool helping to evaluate the team susceptibility to the five dysfunctions.

As we will see in this “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team” book summary, Lencioni structurally describes the model, giving characteristics of dysfunctions one by one, providing suggestions for overcoming them, highlighting the role of leaders in each case, and explaining how exactly the levels correlate.  

Below you can read a short “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team” summary by chapter:

Dysfunction 1: Absence of Trust

Trust is the foundation of real teamwork. And so the first dysfunction is a failure on the part of team members to understand and open up to one another. And if that sounds touchy-feely, let me explain, because there is nothing soft about it. It is an absolutely critical part of building a team. In fact, it’s probably the most critical.

According to Lencioni, trust is the most fundamental principle of team cohesiveness, without which a team falls like a house of cards. Despite the traditional definition of trust as the ability to predict how a particular person would act, Lencioni puts different meaning into this concept, making it more human-oriented. For him, trust is a state when people are confident that those surrounding them wish well and, figuratively speaking, do not hold a knife behind their backs. Trust allows people to be sincere and let go of fears of getting judged. Logically, if there is no trust, the team will not feel comfortable being vulnerable with each other – the evidence of the first dysfunction.

The ambience of trust makes it possible for people to focus on their actual work instead of dispersing their energy on trying to make the right impression. Feeling comfortable with their colleagues, people won’t hide their vulnerabilities like skill deficiencies and requests. There won’t be any necessity to feel ashamed. Unfortunately, says the author, this approach is not accepted in contemporary companies: on the contrary, people tend to get competitive and defensive, so it will take time for them to change it.

Suggestions for overcoming. Naturally, trust cannot be developed overnight; however, there are some tools that can help it thrive. When consistently applied, they can have a long-lasting effect. Here are some of the techniques the author speaks about:

Personal histories exercise. This is a very simple exercise: during a meeting, people ask each other questions about their family, education and so on. The questions do not need to be over sensitive. The main goal is to get to know your colleagues better because it often appears that we know nothing about people we see every day at the office.

Team effectiveness exercise. This exercise requires team members to pick one area in which their colleagues do the best, and one where they do the worst. It can sound like walking on thin ice, but in fact, it helps discover constructive decisions, as well as motivate people to continue doing what they do well.

Personality and behavioral preference profile. All people are different, and it doesn’t mean someone is worse and someone is better. Recognizing the uniqueness of every person, we can develop empathy and improve relationships. It makes sense to spend time and identify psychological types of those who work together on a daily basis, so they tolerate quirks and forgive excessive emotionality or other psychological nuances of each other.

The Role of the Leader. To develop trust, the leader must start with themselves, becoming the role model, says Lencioni. If they demonstrate their own weaknesses and failures, and don't allow team members to harshly criticize each other, the seeds of trust they sow will grow fast.

Connection to Dysfunction 2. The correlation between the first and second dysfunction is obvious: only when people trust each other will they engage in a productive conflict, as they won’t be afraid that the conflict will lead to irreparably burnt bridges.

Dysfunction 2: Fear of Conflict

Harmony itself is good, I suppose, if it comes as a result of working through issues constantly and cycling through conflict. But if it comes only as a result of people holding back their opinions and honest concerns, then it’s a bad thing.

It may sound paradoxical, but for a relationship to grow, there must be conflicts. We are all used to the thought that conflicts are a destructive force that negatively influences all involved. However, this is not necessarily so, says Lencioni.

First of all, there is a difference between interpersonal and ideological conflict. Interpersonal conflicts are really dangerous as they are directed at personality, which often means aggression. Unlike it, ideological conflicts are about ideas, and they can be the fire in which brilliant solutions are born. The problem is, these both types share the same features – they can both be emotionally loaded and full of frustration, so it’s quite easy to mistake one for another.

The lack of conflict leads to artificial harmony, says the author, and adds that the irony of the situation is that while avoiding conflicts we only let the tension boil up, which eventually may result in a huge scandal. This is why it is more reasonable to have debates and let everyone express their thoughts and disagreements. This will prevent people from holding grudges and transforming professional frustrations into personal attacks.

Suggestions for overcoming. The most important thing to overcome a conflict, says Lencioni, is to realize that it can actually be productive. Besides that, there are other methods that can be helpful:

Mining. Team members who usually use the tactics of avoiding conflict should assume a role of a “miner” and extract the problems covered under silent disagreements. This is not easy as it requires courage to point out sensitive issues, yet it is very effective.

Real-time permission. In the course of “mining” for a conflict, some people may get very uncomfortable and eager to end this whole story as soon as possible. To ease the tension, a leader can make a remark and remind them that the conflict they are involved in is productive, and that it is being encouraged on purpose. Lencioni says that even though this can look primitive, like a technique parents use with their children,  the permission to continue in fact gives confidence and strength to go on.

Other tools. Besides personality-type tests the author already mentioned, there are others specifically designed to identify how a particular person reacts to conflict situations (like Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument). Knowing your natural inclinations, you can adjust them to situations and choose the most appropriate approach.

The Role of the Leader. Very often leaders try to do everything possible to soften the conflict, in order to protect their people. Though it can feel like losing control, it’s very important for a leader to step back, let the conflict flow, and let people develop their conflict management skills.

Connection to Dysfunction 3. Unless people feel that their opinion has been heard and taken into account, they will never truly commit. And to hear everybody’s views, there must be debates – and conflict, sometimes.

Dysfunction 3: Lack of Commitment 

Consensus is horrible. I mean, if everyone really agrees on something and consensus comes about quickly and naturally, well that’s terrific. But that isn’t how it usually works, and so consensus becomes an attempt to please everyone.

Commitment on a team arises when all members agree with the decisions made. If they don’t, they won’t really commit, because they will probably start doing things in their own way. This  will create ambiguity, which is the best evidence of this dysfunction, according to Lencioni.

Lencioni talks about two aspects of a good decision – clarity and buy-in. To accept a decision and not just pretend that you agree, you need to feel that it is pretty clear, and that you don’t have any doubts about it. This happens through debates, when everyone gets a chance to contribute to the discussion.Even if your own suggestion doesn’t appear to be final, you still support the one taken by the group.

Lencioni continues that two biggest obstacles to commitment are consensus and the need for certainty. As for consensus, instead of trying to find a decision that would please everyone, which is impossible, it is enough to make people feel that their ideas have been considered. And concerning certainty, we should remember that it can be an elusive thing:even though the decision you make doesn’t look good, you can always change it later – and that will be much better than no decision at all.

According to the author, this dysfunction - lack of commitment - is especially troublesome for the employees who report to the executive team. If executives are not on the same page, their direct reports will inevitably misinterpret the orders, and that will lead to discrepancies of different kinds.

Suggestions for Overcoming Dysfunction 3. Obviously, to handle the lack of commitment, we need to reduce the need for certainty and consensus. The tools which can help with this, as well as teach us how to make decisions, are:

Cascading messages. Unfortunately, employees of lower levels often receive inconsistent information that confuses them. This can be eliminated if managers take message delivery more seriously: after each meeting, they should go over the key decisions and communicate them to their reports. Lencioni says that this exercise, which is basically summarizing the decisions, helps reveal the fact that executives don’t see the overall picture in the same way. Besides, it helps them figure out what information should be kept confidential, and what needs to be spread out.

Deadlines. It’s super banal, but setting time frames is incredibly effective when it comes to commitment. The author also points out that it’s very useful to set deadlines even for intermediate tasks, as it makes the process more consistent.

Contingency and worst-case scenario. While a contingency plan can be reassuring, developing a worst-case scenario can actually show that the world will not collapse if you make the wrong decision. In most cases, the damage caused is not so bad and can always be improved.

Low-risk exposure therapy. This exercise consists in making a decision after a profound discussion, but without deep research. Its goal is to demonstrate that often we make good decisions even without a serious analysis, which can actually paralyze our ability to think out of the box.

The Role of the Leader. The leader must be comfortable  making mistakes and accepting them calmly, to set an example for their employees. They should also control if employees stick to the schedule to meet the deadlines. Crucially, they should never encourage consensus.

Connection to Dysfunction 4. Without doubt, if a person doesn’t understand what is expected, and therefore doesn’t commit, they cannot be held accountable for the result.

Dysfunction 4: Avoidance of Accountability

Once we achieve clarity and buy-in, it is then that we have to hold each other accountable for what we sign up to do, for high standards of performance and behavior. And as simple as that sounds, most executives hate to do it, especially when it comes to a peer’s behavior, because they want to avoid interpersonal discomfort.

When team members refuse to openly discuss problems of performance or behavioral issues, a team becomes dysfunctional. The evidence of the fourth dysfunction, according to Lencioni, is low standards, which no one really tries to raise. Scared to break up personal relationships, people prefer to turn a blind eye to any negative aspects of the work or behavior of their peers. However, acting like this, they only reach the opposite effect, provoking more dissatisfaction, which eventually deteriorates  relationships instead of saving them.

Bringing issues to the surface, says Lencioni, shows respect and a belief that a person is capable of meeting higher standards. Peer pressure protects from bureaucracy (performance evaluations on managers’ part) and, what’s even more important, appeals to the sense of responsibility: hearing negative feedback from someone you respect and are friendly with makes you feel like you are letting them down. This is why it is a valuable instrument.

Suggestions for Overcoming Dysfunction 4. The fourth dysfunction can be reduced using the next techniques:

Publications of goals and standards. Setting the goals, the leader should not leave any room for ambiguity: everyone must know specifically what they have to do, and when. It is also important to make sure that everyone does whatever is required, to not let them just forget about the initial goals.

Simple and regular progress review. Team members should give each other feedback; this can be done either in oral or in written form. It is better when a progress review is conducted not by a person themselves but by their colleagues: people tend to procrastinate when they need to honestly evaluate their own progress.

Team rewards. A good idea is to create a culture of accountability – in other words, reward the team as a whole and not a person as an individual. After all, the essence of a team is the collective effort, so team members must realize that each and everyone is accountable for the overall result. Everyone must feel accountable for the mistakes made, even if the problem that arose was not the sphere of their responsibility.

The Role of the Leader. The leader must encourage the team to function as an accountability mechanism, even though this may be challenging as it seems natural for a leader to praise and to chastise. They should be ready to intrude when necessary, but overall, team members need to have freedom to create the environment where they can exchange thoughts and feel secure.

Connection to Dysfunction 5. If team members do not feel they are accountable for group work, they will not see the main team goal as their own one, focusing their attention on their own departments.

Dysfunction 5: Inattention to Results

When everyone is focused on results and using those to define success, it is difficult for ego to get out of hand. No matter how good an individual on the team might be feeling about his or her situation, if the team loses, everyone loses.

Failing to keep in mind the ultimate goal shared by the whole team, team members shift their focus and pay excessive attention to their own needs, personal or professional. It is like not seeing the woods for the trees, and it obviously has a negative impact on the overall results. For this reason, the evidence of the fifth dysfunction is ego and status.

Inattention to results means that the attention is paid to something else. What can this be?  Lencioni singles out two main distractions, namely team and individual status.

Team status. Sometimes team members are satisfied to be a part of a particular group, and this is enough for them: for example, representatives of nonprofit organizations feel their mission itself is fulfilling their ambitions.

Individual status. Staying self-centered and caring more about your own career prospects than about the well-being of a group, people sacrifice overall results.

Lencioni says that, unfortunately, teams are rarely results-oriented, and no matter how much trust, conflict, commitment, and accountability they put in, it all proves useless without an actual result.

Speaking about results, Lencioni notes that he doesn’t mean financial profit only: this also includes the goals on the way to achieving the final result (which is financial), since these goals set the direction.

Suggestions for Overcoming Dysfunction 5. To get focused on results, Lencioni suggests two main ways:

Public declaration of results. Public proclamations about future success can be dangerous in some scenarios. In sports,for instance, this can cause excessive pressure on players. But when it comes to business, boldly stating the intent to succeed can motivate people to work more passionately. Beware the phrase “We’ll do our best” as it subconsciously prepares you for failure, says Lencioni.

Result-based rewards. Financial rewards should not be the main trigger to work harder; however, they are useful if tied to a specific result.

The Role of the Leader. Lencioni underlines the fact that leaders must permanently emphasize the importance of results, and what’s more, fairly reward and recognize those team members who really deserve it.    

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.

“Healing” an unhealthy team is a long process – because you have to start building a team all over again. But it would be fair to say that any team starts off in a state of dysfunction, since any team consists of people and people are imperfect. And as we have seen from this “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team” by Patrick Lencioni summary, it can be incredibly hard to overcome difficulties caused by human behavior, but trying to do so on a daily basis can make miracles. After all, practice makes perfect.

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