The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable

3Review by Alice Waagen

Book by Patrick Lencioni

Publisher: Jossey-Bass, 2002

When I first looked at Patrick Lencioni’s The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, I felt it had two major obstacles to earning a place on my “Books to Recommend” list. First, it is a book about teams and second, it is a book about leadership. That’s a double-whammy right out of the gate: given the plethora of written material on leadership and teams, I find it a rare occurrence when an author can present new information on these topics.

Although I cannot honestly say that Lencioni gives us new and original information, his presentation of the material is innovative. He unveils a simple model for team effectiveness by telling a story about a small business that is saved from disaster by a new CEO who transforms the senior team from isolated, individual contributors into a high-functioning leadership team.

And, the model Lencioni presents has one unique twist: it explains team characteristics as negative attributes which he calls “dysfunctions.” This concept is easy for most of us to understand and apply, since we often see examples of negative behaviors in the workplace as well as their impacts on our businesses’ success. So, for example, when he presents “absence of trust” as the first dysfunction, it is easy to understand as well as to cite numerous examples that apply to team behavior.

Lencioni’s model is presented in the form of a pyramid — which harkens back to a well-known behavioral model, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Like Maslow’s needs model, Lencioni’s team dysfunction model is hierarchy-based. Thus the first dysfunction, lack of trust, must be resolved before a team can tackle the second dysfunction, fear of conflict. When positioned in a hierarchy, the model makes perfect sense and has good “face validity” in its simple, common-sense language and presentation. In all, the model is practical, easy to understand and makes sense.

This leads me to the final problematic aspect of the book: the “fable” story line. I read this book for one of my book clubs this fall and found that our group had opposite reactions to the fable format. Half the group found the storytelling device engaging and easy to read. Half (and I was in this group) found it insufferably didactic and preachy with a slow pace and condescending tone.

As one of my fellow readers put it: “I got annoyed at having to read through the whole book in order to get the model drawn in its entirely at the end of the book. I would have liked to have had the overview of the model first, then the story (which I could choose to skip if I wanted to).”

Advice for readers: Skip the first 185 pages and go right to the model.

The bottom line: All in all, I liked Lencioni’s model. By positioning absence of trust as the foundation of organizational dysfunction, he clarifies why so many teambuilding interventions fail by focusing on interpersonal issues, such as conflict resolution. Trying to resolve disputes without first addressing overall lack of trust gives us a “cotton candy” fix: it tastes good at first but can leave us feeling sick later. By contrast, attacking team dysfunctions using this sequential, holistic methodology can create more lasting impacts on team performance.