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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.