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Book: The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable

Success is not a matter of mastering subtle, sophisticated theory, but rather of embracing common sense with uncommon levels of discipline and persistence.

Why I read this book?

Teamwork is something that I’ve always been hearing a lot about, but also something I haven’t had a practical need for up until recently. What changed was I started working with a team on the real-world projects.

Most of my education did not require teamwork and what was evaluated was the skill of an individual.
Thus I haven’t been giving it too much thought at that time. I just assumed good teamwork is something that comes naturally when a group of people with the appropriate skillset agree to work together on something.

Having started collaborating with other people, I for the first time experienced how important and beneficial good synchronization between team members (and how destructive the lack of it) can be.

I also felt I was missing the vocabulary to express why is a particular situation “good” or “bad” and was trying to establish a mental framework that would help me classify, understand it and act properly.

When I saw this book recommended by a colleague of mine I hoped it might provide just that, and I wasn’t wrong.

What is it about?

The most of the book is the story about a fictional tech company that despite having unmatched technology and talent still consistently keeps falling behind the competition. The reader is brought into the story at the moment when the company board decides to introduce a new CEO with a task to fix the executive team.

The author explains all the concepts through the story as the new CEO introduces the model of “5 dysfunctions” and works together with the team on addressing them one-by-one.

Book closes with a chapter that succintly defines the model and each of the dysfunctions - why it occurs, how to identify and address it.

The Model

The model identifies five dysfunctions that occur within a team, where the existence of one enables the others in a cascading manner: Dysfunctions pyramid

Dysfunction #1: Absence of Trust

In the context of building a team, trust is the confidence among team members that their peers’ intentions are good, and that there is no reason to be protective or careful around the group.

In order to achieve this kind of trust, we need to overcome our need for invulnerability. Meaning that team members must be confident their mistakes and weaknesses won’t be used against them.

This is something like “overcome your ego”, “don’t be afraid to admit you don’t know everything” stuff everybody talks about. But here it is very precisely explained why it is important, and what are the consequences in failing to do so.

I also like how author explains why it is so hard to overcome this dysfunction - we’re throughout our whole education taught that making mistakes is something to be ashamed of, while in the uncharted entrepreneurial territories it’s basically the main learning tool.

Dysfunction #2: Fear of Conflict

If we don’t trust one another, then we aren’t going to engage in open, constructive, ideological conflict. And we’ll just continue to preserve a sense of artificial harmony.

This is in a nutshell why it is important to achieve trust. The author also stresses down the importance of conflict and that it’s presence is absolutely neccessary in order for a team to grow.

I also found useful this definition of the constructive conflict:

Ideological conflict is limited to concepts and ideas, and avoids personality-focused, mean-spirited attacks. However, it can have many of the same external qualities of interpersonal conflict—passion, emotion, and frustration—so much so that an outside observer might easily mistake it for unproductive discord.

If members of the team are not encouraged (or are even afraid) to express their opinions, that will lead them into the next dysfunction:

Dysfunction #3: Lack of Commitment

It is important to remember that conflict underlies the willingness to commit without perfect information. In many cases, teams have all the information they need, but it resides within the hearts and minds of the team itself and must be extracted through unfiltered debate.
Only when everyone has put their opinions and perspectives on the table can the team confidently commit to a decision knowing that it has tapped into the collective wisdom of the entire group.

Once a person feels confident his arguments have been listened to, he will much easier support the final decision even if it isn’t his first choice.

The benefit here is that the team will be able to reach a decision faster. Even if it is the wrong one, it is often better than stalling and it’s easier to change direction without guilt.

Dysfunction #4: Avoidance of Accountability

More than any policy or system, there is nothing like the fear of letting down respected teammates that motivates people to improve their performance.

Once the whole team is committed to the plan that is clearly defined it is much easier to hold somebody accountable.

The author also described an interesting phenomenon: team members who are close to one another may hesitate calling out on each other in order to preserve their valuable relationship. But the end result is exactly the opposite: they begin to silently lose respect for a colleague since he hasn’t lived up to their initial expectations.

Dysfunction #5: Inattention to results

The ultimate dysfunction, that comes as a consequence of the all previously listed, is that team members don’t care about the collective goals of the group, but rather concentrate on fulfilling their personal goals.

It is helpful to publicly proclaim results that are to be achieved and clearly define what metrics will be used to define success:

Teams that are willing to commit publicly to specific results are more likely to work with a passionate, even desperate desire to achieve those results. Teams that say, “We’ll do our best” are subtly, if not purposefully, preparing themselves for failure.

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