Patrick Lencioni – The Five Dysfunctions of a Team

The Five Dysfunctions of a Team

Patrick LencioniThe Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable (Jossey-Bass 2002)


Patrick Lencioni is a business consultant guru and he has written a number of books on business management.  The Five Dysfunctions of a Team is a sort of self-help book, with a separate workbook, DVD and facilitator’s “field guide” available to accompany it for implementation in actual businesses.  It is written in two parts.  The first is the “fable”, an entirely fictional story of a group of executives at a start-up software company that just demoted its previous CEO and appointed a new one.  The second, much shorter part of the book is an explanation of the author’s theory that there are five dysfunctions of a team, as were purportedly illustrated in the preceding fictional story. The second part of the book also provides brief (one paragraph) suggestions for how to redress each dysfunction.

The book is absolute rubbish — let’s make that clear from the outset.  It provides absolutely no justification or empirical evidence for any of the its assertions, and the fictional story is so poorly drawn and unrealistic that it has only a negative value for the entire book.  Even taken together with the available supplemental materials, the package is really meant to accompany a session with a paid consultant (“facilitator”) who, one hopes, will contribute something useful not found in the book or related written materials.

Most [books like this] have one simple, enduring message that echoes through the ages: ‘Pay to see me speak at the Ramada’.”  (online review)

When someone offers advice on how to avoid the pitfalls of structuring a team, it seems immanently reasonable to demand something more than idle conjecture.  Is Mr. Lencioni’s book an attempt to provide an easy-to-grasp narrative illustration of theories that others have empirically tested?  No.  Does it even fit within a particular school of thought on leadership — generally or at least within a business context?  It is hard to say.  There is not so much as a bibliography included.  No attribution is given to anyone as having originated or at least influenced the concepts discussed in the book.  This is problematic, to say the least.

“How does Patrick Lencioni know there are five dysfunctions and not three or seven? Answer – he uses his own experience, and nothing more.

“What research does he cite in support of his thesis that the most important dysfunction is an ‘abs[]ence of trust.’? The answer is none.

“I could continue but sympathetic readers will understand my point. This is yet another anecdotal, pseudo-scientific business book, of questionable accuracy and limited use.”  (bookstore customer review)

No doubt, it would be easier to swallow some of the advice contained in the book as “common sense” or some such thing if the “fable” part of the book had even a whiff of believability.  Sadly, no.

“One of the main characters in the case (Kathryn) would rarely be hired into a mid-size company. There is no chance that her resume would hit the desk of a multinational corporation. Climbing through the ranks with Kathryn’s credentials is fiction. The author tends to suggest that an extremely uncommon event (that is, retaining an executive with Kathryn’s inexperience and lack of academic pedigree) has some relevance into corporate management at the executive level. It does not. Someone of her caliber may come into the company as a Manager, Director or other middle management hire – but not the lead executive. No way!” (bookstore customer review)

So, the new CEO (Kathryn) sets up the premise of the fable in a totally implausible way.  But, setting that aside, what about her interactions with the other executives?

“The huge egos of company vice presidents crumble under the matronly 7th grade teacher whose husband is a high school basketball coach. Characters are unrealistic and you can’t help but want their company to fail so they find themselves selling Starbucks lattes for a living.” (bookstore customer review)

While the comment immediately above smacks of misogyny — the corporate world needs more “matronly” attitudes as desperately as anything else — and hints at social ostracism based on background — does the occupation of an employee’s spouse really matter to his or her job competence? — the problem with Lencioni’s narrative is that the almost uniformly hard-nosed attitude of most higher-level executives would never let them “crumble” as they do in this fictional account.  The fact that the characters do crumble is revealing about what this book is really about, and why it is so popular — and it is immensely popular.  Here we start to get to the crux of the problem with this book: its ideology.  One “exposé” of business management gurus had this to say:

“Much of management theory today is in fact the consecration of class interest—not of the capitalist class, nor of labor, but of a new social group: the management class.  *** [A]ll economic organizations involve at least some degree of power, and power always pisses people off.”  The Management Myth

So, this looks like a book that is nothing more than a weapon of choice for CEOs or other management trying to reinforce a hierarchy of power within a company.

“This book was completely absurd. It was written to sell and tells CEO’s exactly what they want to hear — that their managers are paranoid children who cannot behave like adults and must be spanked into submission, (though he offers absolutely NO solutions on how to do this).” (bookstore customer review)

Many bookstore customer reviews sharply criticize this book as pushing a “socialist” idea of teams, perhaps also asserting that the supposed benefits of collaboration is empirically false. There is a documentary called The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology (2013) in which old Soviet film is discussed and compared to the 1956 Hungarian uprising against Soviet rule, which was dismissed by Soviet leadership as a few troublemaking individuals not representative of The People — the mythic force of historical necessity used to give the leadership credibility.  There is an analogy here.  This seems precisely to be what Mr. Lencioni is doing with The Five Dysfunctions of a Team.  There is this mythical notion of an Effective Team, which is never really delineated — this book focuses only the supposed dysfunctions without really ever setting forth what an effective, non-dysfunctional team would look like or what ends they pursue.  The only thing we are left with at the end of the book is a reassertion of the control of the CEO.  Whether the company actually succeeds once the CEO has control of the team is not really part of the book, which, lest we forget, is justified only by pure fiction.  This is not “socialist” but authoritarian (that documentary illustrates how the same ideologies show up across the political spectrum, used by communists, fascists and capitalists alike).  Really, if this book were “socialist” (it manifestly is NOT), or even if it really took seriously the democratic implications of teamwork, why is it all about executives operating off on their own without input from rank-and-file employees?  This is the major fault of the book.  It stresses teamwork, but only within certain unquestioned boundaries, all the while offering a stern lecture about how everything, boundaries and all, need to be discussed.  This is a profound hypocrisy.

Anyway, the criticism of Lencioni’s advocacy of “teamwork” rests on two key points.  One is that working collectively on a “team” is more effective than working individually or competitively.  This is an empirical point.  Lencioni does not address it.  The other is that there is an agreed upon way to measure success that allows such an assessment of effectiveness.  Stock price?  Err, does anyone really believe the “efficient market hypothesis” that stock price actually tracks the “real” value to a company anymore?  Stock price aside, this latter issue really gets to the crux of the problem with Lencioni’s book.  What it obfuscates is the question of power.  Who gets to decide the metrics that matter to a business?  After all, accountability (“avoidance of accountability” is one of his “dysfunctions”) presupposes a format for measurement.  Lencioni’s theory rests on a curious definition of teamwork.  That is, it is a non-democratic form of teamwork.  The CEO decides the metrics.  Period.  If a CEO has bad ideas, perhaps a “coup” of sorts by other, lower-level executives to mire the leadership in circular infighting has a benefit to the company, by preventing the implementation of idiotic plans from an incompetent CEO that the other executives have no power to remove — making them somewhat like Bartleby, the Scrivener.  Here, Lencioni’s “fable” gives the company’s board, which fired the previous CEO and hired the new one, a complete pass.  Their decision is non-reviewable.  But shouldn’t accountability flow up to them too?  Oh, wait, accountability in this model implicitly flows, like shit, only downhill.

In a business context, there is always a default to saying that profits matter.  But, of course, Lencioni’s book doesn’t provide data like that as a judge of success — not that any such data in a fictional story would have any persuasive value whatsoever.  And yet, there are other intra-company dynamics at work too.  Why does anyone care about profits?  Why should anyone subordinate their personal interests for the pursuit of profits for someone else?  Lencioni offers a very naïve analysis — really a dismissal — of these things.  Yet sociologists like Pierre Bourdieu have documented such fields of struggles (The Social Structures of the Economy) in a way much more compelling than what is offered here.  This also fits squarely within the theory of historian Alfred Chandler, Jr., whose The Visible Hand: The Managerial Revolution in American Business won many awards on its release for its delineation of how business management behaves like a distinct “class” acting in its own interests quite apart from concerns of shareholders or even for long-term profitability of the firm (really an older idea that comes from the likes of Adolph A. Berle if not earlier, and was later backed up by an investigation by Edward S. Herman). What is difficult to swallow is that the sorts of theories like Lencioni’s look like attempts to justify inequality (here, of power) on the basis of meritocracy, something that at least one observer has noted “conveniently places management consultants … at the very pinnacle of the new order.”

Most executives enter business and go into management for social status, either due to the prestige of their position and the power that it offers, or as a byproduct through the salary or wages it provides.  Lencioni’s narrative would have us believe that such an executive would demote himself for the betterment of the team!  Historians and sociologists have developed considerable evidence that suggests this is quite unlikely.

There are some vague hints at useful concepts implied here.  For instance, the idea that people in business try to save face is an interesting concept.  It is not discussed in any detail though.  Other consultants have brought up that point too, though many also flounder when it comes to offering any actionable advice around it.

Lencioni does suggest that a significant problem teams face is that the people involved won’t discuss real issues.  Anyone who has worked in a corporate setting will immediately appreciate this problem.  Lencioni is by no means the only person who has made this point.  But he offers very little in the way of techniques to uncover subtle obfuscation of the “real” issues in business settings, and in some ways perhaps distracts from such insights.  And his suggestions to overcome this fall very flat.  In this book, his suggestions are so limited to be almost non-existent.  More is provided in the DVD and workbook — oh, did you buy those too?

Lencioni’s accompanying workbook includes a bunch of silly exercises that try to build “trust” by encouraging executives/management to reveal personal details of their life to build trust in a work setting.  This approach could easily be empirically tested.  Like everything else in this book, it isn’t.  It is also a dubious proposition just on a theoretical level.  It seems reasonable to think that people may trust each other as friends, on a personal level, and still not trust each other in work-related capacities, or vice-versa.  If this is not a fair belief, it could be empirically disproved, but you would need to look elsewhere than a Lencioni book.

One prescient comment from an online review is that this book tends to be trotted out by corporate “leaders” who themselves are the major problem in an executive “team” using the book to insist that the problem is everyone else:

“The real truth in our case — the poobah who is making us read this book is the dysfunction of our group. This person has a physical ailment that causes emotional instability — but is too high up the ladder for anyone complain about without being fired. Now we have this book to tell us how it’s actually our fault for not being a good enough team.”  (bookstore customer review)

A much better way to look at problems in business settings is simply to ask the question that Roman censor Lucius Cassius used to ask (this analysis was cited approvingly by Cicero), “Cui bono?”  (“to whose benefit?”).  Is management simply reasserting its power over other employees in a company?  Is that the ultimate object of improving “teamwork”?  Are executives simply re-positioning themselves relative to each other, or relative to other firms, in a hierarchy of social status?  Also, as Lencioni does eventually mention, there are tools from psychology that can help mediate purely interpersonal interactions.  Of course, Lencioni only mentions this stuff on psychology in passing, and without any citation to even a single resource.  You would need to look elsewhere on your own for any useful information in that regard.  But, purely within a “leadership team” setting, Lucius Cassius’ question tends to rise above all others.  Most executives are smart and/or educated enough to not be put off by minor frictions between different personality types, though most executives are also so motivated by status that they constantly reinforce — consciously or unconsciously — the reproduction of certain habits of thought and hierarchies of power and prestige.

Seriously, if your boss is making you read this, it’s already too late.(online review)

Indeed.  If you work at a company where the management believes this book to be useful, you should start looking for other employment immediately.  Sadly, though, it might be hard to find anything outside this paradigm.

Jim Collins – Good to Great

Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap...And Others Don't

Jim CollinsGood to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…and Others Don’t (Random House Business 2001)


Read The Halo Effect by Phil Rosenzweig for an absolutely devastating debunking of Good to Great (or the “peer review” by Matthew Anderson). I won’t repeat what is readily available in Rosenzweig‘s book, or elsewhere, but will say that Rosenzweig systematically picks apart how Collins seems to have no understanding how to conduct proper research and how many of Collins’ theories don’t hold up to scrutiny. Much of Good to Great sounds maddeningly like the kind of “science” relied upon by climate change/global warming deniers. In fact, if you read the collection of Albert Einstein‘s writings Ideas and Opinions, in numerous places he states that science cannot involve deducing theory from evidence, which happens to be precisely what Collins claims he has done with Good to Great and Collins calls it the physics of business/management. Everything you need to know about Jim Collins and his ilk can be summed up by recognizing that probably no union has ever organized workers to demand that management gurus like him be brought in. This is not neutral stuff.  It is partisan rhetoric used to consolidate power with a management class, and strip it from ordinary workers.  In more concrete terms it is about selling feel-good myths to top corporate management, to justify shake-ups and layoffs, and the pay-for-performance regime in executive compensation, for example. There are a few good points in here, but mostly they are reworkings of existing concepts assigned useless new buzzwords by Collins. As many others have made clear, it is sort of amusing to see how many of the companies that Collins trumpets have since gone under (Circuit City), been involved in massive fraud (Fannie Mae, Wells Fargo), or are just plain slimy and corrosive to public well-being (Philip Morris). He seems to defend this in a crude way, simply implying that businesspeople should be sociopaths… Anyway, the bottom-line myth behind this is the idea that MANAGEMENT holds the key to the success or failure or a business. Read Confronting Managerialism by Robert Locke and JC Spender for a useful (and quite different) historical perspective on that. Indeed, the late sociologist Pierre Bourdieu said, “‘Management Theory’, a literature produced by business schools for business schools, fulfills a function identical to that of the writings of the European jurists of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries who, in the guise of describing the state, contributed to building it: being directed at current or potential managers, that theory oscillates continually between the positive and the normative, and depends fundamentally on an overestimation of the degree to which conscious strategies play a role in business, as opposed to the structural constraints upon, and the dispositions of, managers.” (The Social Structures of the Economy).

Chris Argyris – Flawed Advice and the Management Trap

Flawed Advice and the Management Trap: How Managers Can Know When They're Getting Good Advice and When They're Not

Chris ArgyrisFlawed Advice and the Management Trap: How Managers Can Know When They’re Getting Good Advice and When They’re Not(Oxford University Press 2000)


Some good ideas here, but ultimately Argyris falls a bit short. His basic goal is to highlight how many business consulting programs are flawed. He does in fact offer some useful insights and is quite adept at describing some of the “real” problems that businesses face. His strength lies in taking a very psychological approach — it has echoes of the noted French psychiatrist Jaques Lacan. He emphasizes how much behavior of managers is motivated by defensive reactions to avoid embarrassment (what might psychologically be more generally termed “hurt”). Often this produces autocratic responses from managers who seek to impose unilateral control in a counterproductive way and then suppress meaningful discourse on critical topics (often permitting discussion only on what is irrelevant). Argyris’ descriptions fit situations I have witnessed firsthand. Unfortunately, much of this discussion gets mired in unnecessary jargon that is endlessly repeated but never adequately delineated (a glossary or reference table for key terms would help a lot). He does occasionally refer to his past books, but requiring a reader to obtain and read numerous other books in order to understand the current one is not really an acceptable way to write. Moreover, some of his jargon seems to consist of little more than re-labeling of existing concepts (for instance, much of his “theory in use” discussion seems a lot like Alfred Korzybski’s “the map is not the territory” dictum, or sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s concepts of “habitus” and “a knowledge of the real world that contributes to its reality”). The book makes its key point in saying that other management advice tends to not be actionable or testable. A lot of that “other advice” is well-intentioned and perhaps necessary in the abstract — who can argue with injunctions to be accountable, have courage, and produce results? But, according to Argyris, many of these programs lack the detail to rigorously test unstated assumptions. This is a lot like saying those are necessary but not sufficient factors for success. It’s a more ideological attack on Tom Peters/Jim Collins/Stephen Covey nonsense than books like Phil Rosenzweig’s methodological critique in The Halo Effect (which is actually a much better book overall). Where this book falls very flat is that once he has torn down other approaches, Argyris puts little in its place. Argyris’ examples (often in the form of a transcript with annotations) are often esoteric, leaving the reader wondering about the context for the unexplained titles and roles of the characters, and are most often presented as if self-explanatory while lacking any actionable analysis (the very same flaw he points to in other programs). He discusses a lot of role-playing situations, but never clearly establishes that role-playing is an effective tool (one gets the impression that useful information is withheld from this book in order to encourage companies to instead simply hire the author as a consultant). But it also bears mentioning that Argyris is a strong influence on the bogus “fifth discipline” organizational learning crowd, and so must be viewed with a skeptical eye.

In short, this book highlights some extremely frustrating aspects of corporate and business culture, particularly some of the insufferable lies perpetrated by management seeking to assert (or reassert) unilateral control while feigning to engage in “collaboration” or “teamwork” (the real core of the Peters/Collins/Covey-style programs) that only applies to the lower rungs of a business. He offers useful clues to spotting those flaws. But other than that, this book doesn’t put much on the table as an alternative, so don’t come expecting to find it here. In the end this seems like a rather lightweight overview of a topic that deserves better treatment.

For a critique that offers an entirely different perspective (more academic, less practical — and with a few equally stupid recommendations), try Robert Locke and JC Spender’s Confronting Managerialism which offers a historical perspective on US management contrasted to German and Japanese styles and concludes that much of the problems have to do with balance of power (especially the influence of finance), pay inequality, differences between guilt and shame cultures, and the very concept of “professional management”. For instance, they show how Japanese-style programs (re)imported to the USA are often perversely brought over without some of the necessary foundational elements (like meaningful bottom-up employee empowerment). What I like about Locke and Spender is that they recognize that there is no substitute for intelligence and knowledge of the inner workings of a business and only certain organizational structures (the relatively flat ones like in Silicon Valley) can really make use of that talent, whereas others, it would seem Argyris among them, think (I would say wrongly) that good management can be “learned” in any organization independent from organizational structure. Spender and Locke also make compelling arguments that management, particularly the “MBA culture”, brings a typically unspoken agenda to the table and they do a good job elucidating that hidden agenda (de-skill white collar workers, engage in labor arbitrage, and generally substitute financial for engineering standards). Of course, those guys are not without their own flaws, as they seem to endorse German “christian capitalism” as some kind of solution to something, rather than simply taking a psychological approach and saying that US businesses tend to select and reward sociopathic behavior for ideological reasons. Even Rosabeth Moss Kanter might be another person who has offered better overviews of corporate culture at a high level.

Phil Rosenzweig – The Halo Effect

The Halo Effect: ... and the Eight Other Business Delusions That Deceive Managers

Phil RosenzweigThe Halo Effect: … and the Eight Other Business Delusions That Deceive Managers (Free Press 2007)


If you’ve ever had to suffer through business management books by Jim Collins, Tom Peters, et al., this is a welcomed counterpoint. Rosenzweig spares you from having to make all the usual arguments debunking the junk science behind the outrageous claims in many of those other business management books. He does acknowledge that the cheerleading component of business management gurus can have a place. But most importantly he actually engages some of the serious academic research out there on business management, he weighs the different methodologies, and he ultimately concludes that there is no silver bullet, miracle diet or other simple formula or set of steps that inexorably leads to lasting success. Rosenzweig is not without his own blind spots. Anyone who relies as heavily on Joseph Schumpeter as he does naturally would. He also makes ad hominem attacks on W. Edwards Deming that seem odd. The only metric that ultimate matters to Rosenzweig’s analysis is stock price. If you recognize that the speculative nature of stock trading can deviate sharply and nearly independently from company performance (i.e., that the “efficient-market hypothesis” is unsound, as empirical data confirms), you won’t find a comparable recognition here. If you have moral qualms about the human toll incurred through profit at any cost, you’ll also have to look elsewhere for those critiques.