Saturday, May 30, 2015

The five dysfunctions of a team

Patrick Lencioni's' book, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable, is an artfully crafted book designed to showcase his theory of what makes a team work well. The book has two main parts: the first part is a fictional story of a dysfunctional team who learns to work better together and the second part explicitly details the steps and strategies used to achieve that goal.

The storytelling beginning is remarkably effective. It is easy to read and connect with- a storytelling must. Kathryn, our new CEO heroine, pulls her team together, shows them how their lack of teamwork interferes with their lack of business productivity and the business moves on to success.

The centerpiece of the story is that there are five things teams do that prevent their success. Mr. Lencioni imagines these as stacks in a pyramid. When any lower level is impaired, the rest of the pyramid is on shaky ground. At the base of the stack is absence of trust which as seen as a need for invulnerability. Next comes fear of conflict as seen as artificial harmony- agreeing on the surface and not being able to support the decision in private, undermining it outside of the boardroom. Third is a lack of commitment as seen in ambiguity. Fourth is avoidance of accountability as seen in low standards. At the pinnacle is inattention to results as seen in individual focus on status and ego as opposed to team goal achievement.

This series makes intuitive sense, most teams would say they do not fall prey to any of them and most teams are wrong. When think of my particular team, I will show you. Our current departmental leader came in and put together a minute to win it contest to try and build teamwork. Some people enjoyed it. Others tolerated it. I, often not a good team player (an area of needed improvement), demonstrated my dismay at being asked to play at nonsense while I had all kinds of work to do. Teambuilding during the event seemed to consist of dreading the next activity collectively. I did not trust or care about the results. I do not trust my team, I never see them work. When I get to know individual members, I begin to see them and their skills; this builds trust. For me, this is not a group process, but a one-on-one activity. The author recommends avoiding these physical activities as ways to build teams because they do not work.

In education and among women there is often a fear of conflict. As someone who grew up with seven siblings in a loud house, I am very comfortable with conflict. Loud conflict. I know that there a rules about conflict- focus on the single issue at hand, no name calling or personal attacks, etc. I am willing to play devil's advocate for the sake of disagreement. I was at a workshop once where the presenter focused on the idea that consensus in all things is essential. I beg to differ. There are many things we will never agree on. Management must sometimes ignore the ideas of the staff. Parents must ignore the desires of their children. Seatbelts must always be worn. State gatepost tests must be given. I do not care about your personal opinion. When we discuss the issue in an open and frank manner, a decision can be reached. Everyone may not agree with the decision but ultimately they have two team centered choices- support it anyway or leave the organization. Anything else degrades the team.

My husband frequently talks about spirited discussions between him and the CTO of his company that other team members would step back and watch. This was a senior engineer and his boss, discussing deeply technical issues and not agreeing. These discussions, however, helped both of the men grow and understand the issues. The CTO won more often than not, but my husband also was able to win. Sometimes, they walked away agreeing to disagree. Many times decisions were modified to reflect a more thorough understanding of the issues.

If we cannot commit to support the goal, we need to get out. In education that means get out of the district or teaching altogether. That is scary. Unlike many other jobs, teaching is not a portable skill. Once you have too many years in, you are an unlikely hire. Pay is often slashed by switching districts. We can work within the field to disagree- lobby our representatives, attend and speak out at school board meetings, participate in school level decision-making teams. We can do these things while supporting the policy at the classroom level. Undermining the policy, however, erodes the team effort. We cannot avoid speaking up and then fail to support a decision. That is unfair to everyone. We cannot avoid making a decision because someone's feelings may be hurt.

Avoidance of accountability is one that I find particularly interesting. About twenty years ago I was at a staff meeting as a very junior member. We were being asked to look at data for our students and manually desegregate it. I piped up with a question, "If we had printouts of the data, why were being asked to desegregate the data manually, wouldn't it make more sense to do it with a computer?" I got a "computers can't do it" response and that was it. I knew that I could write a simple program that could do this, so I was not satisfied. Later, someone in a mentoring role to me took me aside and said we should not question the people on this particular committee because they were the school powerbrokers. This incident has always stuck in my craw. Here was a team that absolutely refused to be held accountable for how they used people's time or anything else. I was blackballed as a result of this incident. We need to have high standards and be willing to accept people calling us to account for violating them. Even junior people have good insights. What they lack in experience, they make up for with not being tied to tradition and having fresh insights.

Ultimately what drives a lot of the previous issues is inattention to results. Ego. I cannot be wrong, so you had better shut up. This attitude is pervasive in schools and other businesses as well. If it is all about me, it cannot be about doing a good job. We need to individually address this idea, not just take but encourage constructive feedback, and learn that it is never to late to learn something new.

 This book masterfully shows how to be a better team. It takes work, but it can be done. Further, becoming a better team results in achieving better results. It maximizes ideas and potential.

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