I’ve run into several people lately who mentioned that they were studying the book titled The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, by Patrick Lencioni. I decided that perhaps, along with The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, this is one of those classics I should take a look at.
The book cover describes the story as a “leadership fable”. In sales and business books, this has become a popular motif. Now, when I think fable, I tend to think of the Aesop variety. However, the book is a fictional tale that makes a point, so I guess it qualifies. The book follows a new CEO who takes on a fumbling technology company in the Silicon Valley area.* The CEO takes her management team away for an off-site retreat and tries to break them down in order to build them up again, into a better, more effective team. Of course, she faces resistance along the way, but in the end, everyone is happier and results are being achieved.
The author has a nice little triangle that represents the five dysfunctions. (I normally wouldn’t reproduce something without copyright permission, but since this image appears literally hundreds of times all over the Web, I think the cat is out of the bag.)
The negative progression is this: a lack of trust means that people are not vulnerable with each other; when they are not vulnerable with each other, they are afraid of engaging in conflict with one another, for fear of getting their own feelings hurt or hurting someone else’s feelings. Because people are not open with one another, they don’t share their real doubts with one another, which means when a decisions is made, they don’t really “buy in” to the agreed upon goals, and thus aren’t really committed. If teammates are not committed to a common goal, there’s ambiguity which results in a loss of accountability. And when no one knows what they’re accountable for, there will be no real results to show for anyone’s work.
The inverse of the five dysfunctions is this: when people trust each other, they will not shy away from open conflict, because they don’t fear personal attacks. This helps root out problems more quickly, which means agreed upon goals come about more quickly. When everyone is aware what the very clear goals are, and people have felt that their voice has been heard (because they weren’t afraid to vocally conflict with one another in heated discussions), they are more willing to commit to a common path forward, even if it wasn’t what they want. When people are willing to commit to a goal (even if it wasn’t their idea or choice), they are aware exactly what they are supposed to achieve, and the team can effectively hold each other accountable. When everyone holds each other accountable, they can focus on achieving results.
I have to admit, my perspective on the fable was about 15 degrees off from typical audience I believe the book was written for. Although I have just started my own business, I’m not at the helm of a company with multiple layers of management; it’s just me and whomever is working with me. However, as a consultant, I frequently need to come in as an outsider and work with a new team to achieve the end goal of completing a project together with my clients. The good side is that I have no bad history with my new teammates, but the bad side is that neither do I have a good track record with them. It’s amazing how some people view me as welcome relief — whether it means helping them with a job they felt overwhelmed in, or whether it means feeling like they can finally have an “outsider” tell their boss what they’ve been trying to say for some time, and finally be heard. However, there are some people who have a very negative attitude about my presence. Very often it’s because I’m helping them implement a new software package that was decided on by their boss, and the person I’m working with feels insecure about the new technology and greatly worries about their future job prospects. Those are the times when I meet the greatest resistance.
The key with the boat I’m in, is that I don’t have leverage over people to say, “We’re going to restructure the team, and here’s how,” the way the CEO in the book does. Instead, I have to lead from behind. Not being an employee, and not being anyone’s manager, I don’t really have the right to tell people how to behave or do their job, simply because I don’t have any effective way of following through on promotion or demotion, or financial compensation — two of the most strong motivators of people to change. The best thing I can do is exhibit the kind of behavior I want to see in return.
The author suggests a basic team building exercise involves doing a simple ice breaker where people share with each other where they grew up, their worst job, or something similar. I know that when I do pre-sales activities, or show up for my first day of work, I always wear a suit; it’s a small way of saying “I’m a professional and I’m here to do a job. You can trust me to get the job done.” But on the second day at the client, I’ll dress business casual. Why? Because I want the people on the team to know that I’m one of them. No one wants an outsider telling them how to do my job, and I get that. That’s why I share with them pictures of my toddler and talk about the trials and tribulations of motherhood. When they know I’m just like them, they’re more likely to open up about themselves. Obviously, trust is only built when my customers see that I can deliver, but since that happens at the end, I have to take baby steps along the way.
Again, this is where I’m in a somewhat different boat that most people. If I make you angry, I’m not quite as worried, because I don’t have to work with you for the next 20 years. I don’t have to worry if you’ll kill my plan in 5 years because of something I say today. To be honest, though, I think that’s one of the best reasons why it IS good to hire an outsider. I sometimes feel like, because I don’t have as much skin in the game, I can say, “Hey, guys! This is a crazy way to do things! Maybe we can do it differently.” I’m always happy if I can help the rest of the team start to open up with each other, too. However, I try to be sensitive to the fact that it’s not my job to “stir the soup” when I’m not the one who has to live with the long term consequences. Truly, to get people to feel safe enough to argue openly with one another, this needs to be a corporate value that’s encoraged at every level. People need to know that there won’t be long term consequences, or policital games that will be played, when they openly voice their opinions.
Like I said previously, I don’t have any real motivator to get people to commit to a project when they are resistant. If someone is uncooperative, I’m not a position to threaten “shape up or else.” However, that’s not always bad. People always do better work when they are internally motivated. I have to help them decide that this project is worth their effort. How do I do this? For those who are actively “kicking against the goads”, I try to “drain the pond” (to mix two metaphors). There are some people who constantly complain, complain, complain. I try to take each of their complaints one by one and address them. Eventually they find themselves out of anything to complain about. Finally, when these people complain, it ends up in a conversation like this:
Becky: “Why are you upset?”
Client: “I just don’t understand how this is all supposed to work.”
Becky: “What specifically don’t you understand? Do we need to review one of your questions again?”
Client: “I don’t know, I just…” (voice trailing off.)
At this point, one of two things are going on.
- They don’t have anything to complain about anymore, and at that point you have to point out that if they don’t have anything constructive to say or ask, the conversation is over.
- They’re still feeling in an internal state of discomfort, and it’s important that I dig deeper to find out what it is that’s going to give them peace. Once I figure out what the real issue is, why they’re dragging their feet, I can help them understand that I’m not there to make their life worse, but I’m there to help them make their life better. Often times this comes down to, “I didn’t decide to implement SharePoint, your boss did. If you work for the project instead of against it, it’s better for your job prospects in the long run. I can help you succeed at SharePoint, which will help you succeed with your job and your manager.”
This is where I feel at a total loss, not being a manager. The best I can do is to clearly state what expectations are for each team member, and try to eliminate any sense of ambiguity about what needs to happen next. Often, this comes down to just good old plain project management skills. I don’t really have the ability to get different team members to cooperate, mainly because I often work for a department who is working with other departments. It’s not just that I’m not in charge my team from an employer-employee relationship; even the manager who hired me typically isn’t in charge of the whole project; that person is often in charge of an IT team who has been tasked with providing a Web site for some other team. So, the best I can do is raise flags as they come along, but I really have no ability to follow through.
Ultimately, a customer will judge me based on whether I got a finished product out the door. If they like me or not, it’s hard to deny I did a good job if I’m able to help them launch an actual site successfully. As I said before, my motivating factor is helping the rest of the team to work toward that common goal with me. It all comes down again to trust. Can I help them believe that we all have the same goal… of launching a successful site. When they feel like I have the same goal as they do, we’ll get results.One of the most demotivating projects I was working on was for a company where the people who asked for the site had minimal interest in it, and the IT department was in such a “CYA” mode that they just told me, basically, “Not our problem.” I was shocked that they didn’t seem to feel any sense of common ownership or a common goal of creating this site, even though it was their job to do so. It’s little wonder that this company has had run-ins with the government for fraud, and that it’s constantly facing financial difficulties.
I think one of the most fundamentally difficult things you deal with when dealing with the human race is that we’re all intrinsically selfish beings. We all are going to look out for number one. In the United States, we especially pride ourselves on individual thinking and action. NBA and NFL teams are based on superstars, not teams. The most difficult task that I think the author glossed over is, how do you get people to feel like putting the team over their own interest is actually in their own interest? In other words, how do you come to a win-win situation, where people feel like subjugating their own ego or own needs will actually help them come out winners in the end?
I don’t have an answer for that, but I’m sure there’s some other book (or hundreds of books) out there that I need to put on my book list next!
As an aside, the book was written in 2001, right at the end of the dot boom and shortly after 9/11. It’s ironic that, as dated as the premise of a booming tech company seems, Silicon Valley is starting to experience a second boom and the underlying context seems once again plausible.