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Review: Five Dysfunctions of a Team

I’ve read a good amount of Dan Brown’s novels. It’s a guilty pleasure in reading; I know that every story features literally the same character, much of the same plot points, dashes of real-world facts and history that suggest conspiracies hidden in plain sight1, but still enjoy the quick romp through each story’s many exotic locales and landmarks. Brown’s writing style also makes it easy to read “a couple more minutes”: each chapter is only a handful of pages, written accessibly and simply, with well-paced action interlaced between plot points, almost always ending on a cliffhanger. It is, in aggregate, a writing style that is uniquely Dan Brownian2.

What does this have to do with the management classic, Five Dysfunctions of a Team?

Well, it did admittedly remind me of the Dan Brown school of writing™, applied to management theories and practices. It’s not a long book, and each chapter is pretty short, with many ending in the work version of a cliffhanger (e.g., will someone get fired?). Occasionally, the prose will narrow on a set of details—descriptions of the locations and snippets of casual conversations—that don’t have much relevance to the lessons to be learned, but I suppose adds some depth to the settings. Even the author admits in the foreword that they found this style of storytelling to be the most effective in engaging clients/readers.

Of course, Five Dysfunctions is considered a classic because, beneath its pulp exterior, it is still a powerful lesson in management that feels eternally relevant. The main construct is a pyramid of team dysfunctions, invoking Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Solving for realization at each level, starting from the bottom, uncovers the next area of dysfunction that the team needs to address, from the bottommost “trust” all the way up to the capstone “results”. The model itself isn’t too radical, and it indeed gives structure to a set of concepts that managers often fret upon.

And here, I will give credit to the author’s presentation of these ideas to keep the prose from getting too businesslike, deviating from the style of countless management books. Instead of showing the model and listing out the use cases that prove its effectiveness, Five Dysfunctions features a new CEO of a struggling startup, brought in to rein in an uncooperative executive team, handling a multitude of personalities and egos while advancing up the dysfunction pyramid. By the end of the short story, there were a couple of executive turnovers, some troublesome personalities predictably improved, and the startup got back on track.

One interesting aspect of the book is its details on a handful of executive working offsites3, the primary strategy its CEO uses to address their team’s dysfunctions. Having never been an executive myself4, I’ve always wondered what higher-ups do with extended time away from the office, away from their own teams and thus distanced from the rich business context that helps inform decision-making. Granted, the story is fictional, so the results are more idealized than how it might play out in real life.

I also like the psychological details that the author gets into, again made possible because of the storytelling format. There is a running thread through the CEO’s thoughts, and the book will detail how they’ll choose to what, how, and when to respond to ongoing situations, going as deep as musing whether to stop an executive’s bad behavior on the spot versus later in the evening. For those who subscribe to the idea that each sentence of a conversation can have downstream consequences, Five Dysfunctions illustrates exactly what that may look like.

Five Dysfunctions is an easy recommend. The book is a quick read—it’s short and encourages continuous progress—and presents a solid model for teamwork, even if the situation presented is only applicable to senior teams. I’m sure there are multitudes of management consultants who have already taken this work, and have reworked it for teams at all management levels; traits such as trust and commitment and results are, after all, critical for any team regardless of level. At the very least, understanding the roots of team dysfunctions and potential solutions is a good mental model to keep in your management back pocket.

  1. Which apparently does boost tourism, but whose accuracy is often questionable.

  2. And many literary critics argue that despite his commercial success, it is not a style worth emulating in all its terribleness.

  3. This being a Silicon Valley startup, of course they head to Napa for a few days.

  4. Though I’ve attended a couple of such working offsites, the style differs substantially based on the participants and objectives.

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