I read this book when it first appeared on the market in 2002 and wrote the critique below soon after. Fifteen years later and wiser (I hope), I am absolutely flabbergasted to find out that this shallow, unrealistic, unscientific collection of pop psychology / sociology is still ranked #140 of all two million for sale by Amazon. Spare yourself the few dollars; take a vacation when your boss hands you this book in preparation for the next offsite. You can pick up more useful hints by reading Mad Magazine, unless of course, somebody moved your cheese.
The author uses the fictitious case of a turnaround at a startup to illustrate five common dysfunctional behaviors that characterize failing teams. He then proceeds to explain how overcoming those five dysfunctions will lead to managerial nirvana. Has this guru discovered the Holy Grail of management? Read on!
Adjusting the Perspective
There are several fundamental flaws with the premise upon which the entire book rests. Firstly, the whole fictional tale takes place in an entrepreneurial vacuum. The company we are introduced to is not in any way tethered to the economic reality. As a result, the behavior exhibited by the protagonists is unlikely to occur in a go-get gung-ho high energy startup. It is more reflective of the culture of established mid-size or large organizations.
Arguably, an even greater flaw is the omission of the competitive spirit which is a much more important determinant of economic success than what the author rather arbitrarily defines as ideal team behavior. Case in point, the countries of the former East Bloc. The leadership of those autocratic societies placed a strong emphasis on the team. At the work place, the team (collective, brigade) and not the individual was considered the smallest unit. Economic incentives, if implemented, were typically given out at the team level. Differentiation by individual was anathema, which is one of the most important reasons for the economic failure of communism.
The third basic flaw is a logical extension of the first and second. The author fails to acknowledge the power of economic incentives on the individual. Trying to analyze economic activity while denying the fundamental driver of that activity, namely economic reward, is like writing a thesis on the behavior of lions but leaving out the feast at the end of a successful hunt. How many people would actually go to work, even in the nicest of places, if it were not for the income derived from that activity? If you deny this fundamental engine that drives human behavior, you have year head buried in the sand down to your shoulders. And the view from that position is anything but enlightening.
Debating the Arguments
Now, let’s deal with the authors arguments at the level they are made. The pyramid he constructs makes sense – or does it? The foundation of the pyramid is trust upon which rests everything else: dealing with conflict, commitment to common goals, holding everybody accountable, and finally focus on results. Building that pyramid is like rubbing the magic lamp, all there is left to do is make the right wishes.
Staying with the pyramid paradigm, the first problem with this construct is that the author lays a most brittle foundation, Trust cannot be declared into existence, it needs time to develop, and it needs its own foundation to rest upon. Executive teams are put together and ripped apart with predictable regularity. Time is not an ally, but even with little time on their hands, teams with strong members still have a chance to build trust relationships. Individuals with a sense of self-worth don’t feel a need to protect a fragile ego and are thus much more open to fact based brutally honest discussions. So, let’s put another layer under the existing pyramid and call it self-confidence.
For self-confidence to have roots in reality, it must be based on competence. Additionally, good character is needed to prevent confidence from degrading into arrogance. Ergo, when building a team, character and competence are the most fundamental criteria for success. I am with Jim Collin’s basic premise: “get the right people on the bus”. The idea that integrity, intelligence, and empathy can be taught is wishful thinking, but it provides a comfortable livelihood for an army of HR professionals and management consultants.
But why build a pyramid at all? Does each of the layers truly rest solidly on the previous ones? The pyramid is no reflection of the complex reality of human psychology and the interaction among human beings. The pyramid seems intuitive in its simplicity and as such is a great marketing tool. As such, it has done a phenomenal job, however it serves the author, not the reader.
I have witnessed highly successful teams in situations where a laser like focus on results was the foundation for everything the team did. Such teams were typically driven hard from the top, but the bottom bought into the concept because success was beneficial to all. As a matter of fact, commitment and accountability can also be driven from the top without the necessary underpinnings of trust and willingness to engage in conflict. Granted, I’d rather work with a team that shows all the enlightened behaviors the author delineates rather than one that is relentlessly driven from the top. But in reality, it probably takes a reasonable mix of both approaches for the executive leadership of a company to succeed.
The pretend dialog among the protagonists, when it is not obnoxiously flat, is often too high level and too general to be believable. More often than not, it is not clear why individuals suddenly change their opinion based on a statement full of banalities made by one of the “good guys”. Also, sloppiness diminishes credibility. It is rather astounding that neither the author nor his editor know that consultants do not promote employees (as in the tale concerning Kathryn’s worst mistake). Right then and there one must ask oneself: “Has this author ever really, I mean really, worked on a team that had defined goals?”.
Another case of sloppiness is the constant referrals by Kathryn to the many, many teams she has observed during a business career that spanned only 20 years. The author further betrays his lack of grounding in reality by introducing outsourcing into the mix of issues our startup is wrestling with. Mr. Author: Outsourcing is NOT a strategic issue for a startup!!!
Finally, the height of feel-good inanity is Kathryn’s statement that “we will make collective decisions on a daily basis”. This is mindless babble. Executive teams are as likely to make collective decisions on a daily basis as they are to hold hands and sing kumbaya at the end of every meeting.
Finally, the description of the reorganization of the executive team at the very end of the story has no direct linkage to the main line of the book. Here the author goes with one of the most idiotic but widely practiced management principle that says: “If you have no idea how to fix a problem, just reorganize”. But, of course, this author feels compelled to add an additional nugget of wisdom: fewer direct reports are better. But alas, the smaller the management teams at each of the layers of a corporate hierarchy, the deeper the hierarchy. Startups are typically flat with one small leadership team in charge.
And after a long and arduous climb, the author finally reaches the pinnacle of Mount Bizarre by having Human Resources reporting into the CFO!!! Do we need say more?
Why is it that management consultants have risen to such prominence in the corporate landscape? They are expert sales people whose purported mission in life is to help all executives who are faintly aware of their own shortcomings (and that is most of us, myself included). “I can help you, I will support you, I can pretty much guarantee you a successful career” is the mellifluous message that is hard to resist.
The obvious paradox in this scenario is that the self-appointed “knowers” are offering advice to the “doers” in our society. Armed with a “smart” vocabulary and slick charts, these pseudo intellectuals pretend to teach capitalists how to do capitalism. There is only one degree of separation between those consultants and some of the charlatans who call themselves motivational speakers who do nothing but give people false hope for betterment and pick their pockets in the process. And the beauty of it all is that nobody ever even pretends to measure the effectiveness of this kind of service. It is okay to preach accountability as long as it does not get turned around and pointed in one’s own direction.
Pop managerial science is like lukewarm pudding – it is inoffensive and goes down easy but does not add much substance to the body. The nods of understanding in response to a wonderfully intuitive theory dissipate into nothingness as soon as the messenger is finished feeding the audience. Action does not follow. And as far as this book is concerned, it may make you feel good because you follow the author along the primrose path decorated with beautiful petals of wisdom. But alas, those petals will wilt when exposed to the relentless rays of reality. In the end, Five Dysfunctions will not only fail to give you the tools you are looking for, it may even set you back in your quest for betterment as it may lull you into a state of complacency and prevent you from continuing your quest.