Skip to Content

The Five Dysfunctions of a Team

Someone sent me a copy of _The Five Dysfunctions of a Team_. I didn't really like it.

The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Lencioni reads like mid­dle-man­ager fan fic­tion. Beyond the out­ra­geously bad di­a­logue and cutely arranged set pieces, all spread out across large type, short chap­ters, and gen­er­ous white space to pad this brief sem­i­nar into a real book”, Lencioni’s the­sis through­out is freighted with the zeit­geist of the early 2000s late cap­i­tal­ist striv­ing.

Structuring this self-help sem­i­nar for mid­dle man­agers dis­il­lu­sioned with their di­rec­tion­less grind to nowhere as a fable” (or bad fic­tion”) makes it read like a shock­ingly earnest first draft of Max Barry’s Company, which is a satir­i­cal skew­er­ing of cor­po­rate man­age­ment con­sul­tants and prac­tices.

Team dys­func­tions are seen as fail­ings of in­di­vid­ual ac­tions, and that the be­hav­ior of in­di­vid­u­als in a team is the root cause for fail­ure of the team. This im­plies that be­hav­ing dif­fer­ently in an or­ga­ni­za­tion is enough to the change the out­comes of that or­ga­ni­za­tion. This is flatly un­true - in­di­vid­u­als have lit­tle to no abil­ity to change the out­comes of struc­tural and or­ga­ni­za­tional de­ci­sions that have been built into the fab­ric of the group. Lencioni’s fic­tional startup is built on cap­i­tal­ist ax­ioms that in­her­ently un­der­mine the very points he’s try­ing to ar­gue. For in­stance, the root dys­func­tion he iden­ti­fies is Lack of Trust”. There is lit­er­ally no rea­son, cause, or ben­e­fit to trusting” a cor­po­rate team. When em­ploy­ment is at will and there are no pro­tec­tions for work­ers, fo­cus­ing on in­di­vid­ual im­pact and the ap­pear­ance of pro­duc­tiv­ity to peers and higher ups be­comes the sole func­tion of work. Placing the goals and pri­or­i­ties of an or­ga­ni­za­tion above your own is deeply fool­ish when that same or­ga­ni­za­tion has no doubts or qualms about your place in it. The or­ga­ni­za­tion of struc­tural power de­fines the ab­sence or pres­ence trust, and in­di­vid­ual be­hav­ior has no sway on that power struc­ture.

The dys­func­tions in to­tal are as fol­lows: Absence of trust, fear of con­flict, lack of com­mit­ment, avoid­ance of ac­count­abil­ity, and inat­ten­tion to re­sults. When viewed through the lense of struc­tural power, it’s clear that ab­sence of trust and fear of con­flict are two sides of the same coin - as are lack of com­mit­ment and avoid­ance of ac­count­abil­ity. All four are more eas­ily un­der­stood by the sys­tems that are in place for do­ing work rather than be­hav­iors of in­di­vid­u­als. The fifth is per­haps true, but nearly tau­to­log­i­cal to the point of use­less­ness. To im­ply that a dys­func­tion team is inat­ten­tive to any re­sults is ab­surd, so the im­pli­ca­tion is that the team is inat­ten­tive to the cor­rect re­sults. If you fo­cus on the right thing you won’t be wrong. Not very help­ful. Again, the lense of or­ga­ni­za­tional power is help­ful: in­stead of ask­ing what re­sults are at­tended to, the ques­tion be­comes what re­sults are val­ued and re­warded.

The ap­proach that Lencioni takes in demon­strat­ing (crudely) his ideal team also suf­fers from one of the key rhetor­i­cal traps out­lined in Keywords: The New Language of Capitalism by Leary - speak­ing of the cor­po­rate as if it where lit­er­ally cor­po­ral. The Team in this case be­comes em­bod­ied, and in do­ing so it erases the hu­man­ity of its mem­bers. This is the key con­tra­dic­tion in the dys­func­tions - Lencioni iden­ti­fies that the only way to sub­li­mate ones in­di­vid­u­al­ity away for the sake of the cor­po­rate struc­ture is through in­di­vid­ual im­prove­ment, which he equates to moral im­prove­ment. This is per­haps less a flaw in his rea­son­ing than a de­scrip­tion of cor­po­rate America’s ideal em­ployee. The cor­po­ra­tion de­sires all of the re­ward and ben­e­fit of your la­bor, and the com­plete de­vo­tion of your­self to pro­duc­ing that la­bor, while dis­avow­ing any risks or con­se­quences that may at­tend it as your own per­sonal prob­lem. Lencioni de­serves credit at least for out­lin­ing the goals and struc­tures of vam­pire cap­i­tal­ism so clearly.

Lencioni con­tin­ues to show that a team of lead­ers must nec­es­sar­ily re­move them­selves from the teams they lead, and cre­ate a clois­ter amongst them­selves. In do­ing so, he ad­vo­cates for plac­ing the goals of the col­lec­tive lead­er­ship team over their in­di­vid­ual goals and the goals of their in­di­vid­ual groups. This is the reg­u­lar party line for cor­po­rate tech­nocrats: the hu­mans be­low us whom we rely on to per­form la­bor mat­ters less than the group of peers who di­rect and profit from that la­bor. This rhetoric per­forms two jobs; the first is work­ing to dis­tance the pow­er­less from the pow­er­ful, and the sec­ond to jus­tify the dis­tance that the pow­er­ful al­ready sense be­tween them and their sub­jects. There can be no re­la­tion­ship of peers be­tween a rich owner of a com­pany and white col­lar work­ers whose la­bor they profit from. It’s been known and ob­served that be­ing rich and own­ing com­pa­nies means you are no longer able to act like or un­der­stand peo­ple who are not rich or own com­pa­nies. You lose em­pa­thy for them, and see only other rich own­ers as your group of peers. Lencioni works to sooth any moral qualms the rich may have about this while in­doc­tri­nat­ing the mid­dle man­agers who are the true au­di­ence to the ne­ces­sity of align­ing with cap­i­tal over la­bor. This scene im­me­di­ately segues into our brave ex­ec­u­tive team hav­ing a con­ver­sa­tion about adjusting the amount of re­sources al­lo­cated to en­gi­neer­ing” - in other word fir­ing peo­ple.

This is the core is­sue I have with the en­tire book. Any con­se­quences of wield­ing power are firmly de­nied - placed within the realm of the strategic de­ci­sion” while the po­lit­i­cal struc­ture of the cor­po­ra­tion de­mands and re­quires in­di­vid­ual sub­servience to col­lec­tive goals with ab­solutely no rec­i­p­ro­ca­tion of any kind. Sorry, it’s a strate­gic de­ci­sion and we’re al­lo­cat­ing re­sources else­where. Now your en­tire fam­ily does­n’t have health in­sur­ance. Is any­one truly sur­prised that an ab­sence of trust is en­demic to the cor­po­rate struc­ture?

Lencioni goes on to demon­strate a fir­ing in ac­tion. My hus­band is a lawyer so you will have a tough time mak­ing the case to fire me?” What is this? This is in­sane. In what world do these peo­ple live in where at-will em­ploy­ment is­n’t a thing? You can be fired at any time for any rea­son. The VP in ques­tion goes on to ne­go­ti­ate her own fir­ing. 3 months sev­er­ance and in­stant vest­ing of stock. Is this se­ri­ously how Lencioni imag­ines this works? Is this re­ally how this works for these peo­ple? Because for peo­ple like me it’s much more like hand in your gun and your badge im­me­di­ately, we’ll give you two weeks sev­er­ance if you sign this NDA. People like me want to be fired so we can col­lect un­em­ploy­ment. And later, Companies don’t usu­ally fire con­trac­tors” what planet is this dude on?

Through the book, Lencioni uses phrases and id­iomatic struc­tures that I don’t think I’ve ever en­coun­tered be­fore. Enter the dan­ger.” What does that mean? Is it the dan­ger zone? These come at a quick pace, and are pre­sent in both the di­a­log and the in­ter­sti­tial nar­ra­tion. The over­all ef­fect is one of com­plete dis­ori­en­ta­tion, the feel­ing is that your bob­bing at sea in the text with­out be­ing able to get firm bear­ings on any sort of shared, con­sen­sus re­al­ity. They called each other on the car­pet”? What the fuck?

Our hero’s be­hav­ior def­i­nitely looks like what CEOs and top brass like to pre­tend they are do­ing, so we’re cre­at­ing tau­to­log­i­cal sup­port for man­agers to con­tinue do­ing what­ever they are al­ready do­ing and dress­ing it up as an in­sight. The only thing that’s sur­pris­ing about this grift is that I did­n’t re­al­ize what was hap­pen­ing sooner.

This book has a ter­ri­ble de­f­i­n­i­tion of pol­i­tics - in­stead of em­brac­ing that pol­i­tics is the ap­pli­ca­tion of power (and there­for in­her­ent and nec­es­sary in any so­cial group, es­pe­cially a firm) Lencioni seems to de­fine pol­i­tics as dis­hon­est in­ter­per­sonal be­hav­ior -“acting a given way in or­der to so­licit a cer­tain re­ac­tion” or some­thing. This shows that Lencioni has ab­solutely no un­der­stand­ing of the power that the heads of firms do wield, as un­der­stand­ing the mech­a­nisms of that power would nec­es­sar­ily be pol­i­tics.

In a scene where the ex­ec­u­tives are con­sid­er­ing sell­ing the com­pany, we see them weigh­ing the de­ci­sion in terms of their own per­sonal ben­e­fit. This means they each own a good amount of stock. This means that they are own­ers of the com­pany. This means that they have a com­pletely dif­fer­ent re­la­tion­ship to the work as their em­ploy­ees, who are not own­ers, own no stock, and make no de­ci­sions. What does this do for our mid­dle man­ager au­di­ence? They re­ject the of­fer, so it must be a les­son in valu­ing the work over the money (or a re­in­force­ment that the whole point is to chase more and more money)

The fi­nal 35 pages of the book are the ac­tual sem­i­nar - Lencioni has padded 35 pages of con­tent into 222 (not count­ing the fi­nal ded­i­ca­tion to the fallen of 9/11 to re­ally ce­ment the early 2000’s tone). The sem­i­nar in­cludes a ques­tion­naire that each mem­ber of a team should fill out, how­ever it help­fully re­minds the reader that no part of the as­sess­ment may be re­pro­duced or stored in any way. I guess you have to buy every­one a book and have them fill it out in the book. At the end of the as­sess­ment there is an ad­ver­tise­ment for Lencioni’s con­sult­ing ser­vices. The trans­par­ent grift is breath­tak­ing. The overview of the dys­func­tions so­lid­ify the slog of the pre­vi­ous ter­ri­ble fic­tion: in short that the in­di­vid­ual be­hav­ior and in­ter­per­sonal re­la­tion­ships are more im­por­tant than or­ga­ni­za­tional struc­ture in defin­ing out­comes, and that what be­hav­iors you are cur­rently do­ing are cor­rect but you should prob­a­bly hire Lencioni as a con­sul­tant be­cause it takes con­stant work and main­te­nance to avoid falling apart.

In short, a per­fect grift to tell the Silicon Valley mid­dle man­ager or ex­ec­u­tive ex­actly what they want to hear, for­mu­lated in a way to ex­tract as much money out of them as pos­si­ble.