Tuesday, September 9, 2008

The elusiveness of genuine teamwork

I was going back through my notes last night and came across this 2005 article from USA Today about the number of NFL coaches reading the book "The Five Dysfunctions of a Team" by Patrick Lencioni.

It took me most of the evening, but I managed to type up an excerpt of the book for those who've not read it yet:

In the course of my experience working with CEOs and their teams, two critical truths have become clear to me.

First, genuine teamwork in most organizations remains as elusive as it has ever been. Second, organizations fail to achieve teamwork because they unknowingly fall prey to five natural but dangerous pitfalls, which I call the five dysfunctions of a team.

1. The first dysfunction is an absence of trust among team members.

Essentially, this stems from their unwillingness to be vulnerable within the group. Team members who are not genuinely open with one another about their mistakes and weaknesses make it impossible to build a foundation for trust.

Members of trusting teams admit weaknesses and mistakes. They ask for help, give one another the benefit of the doubt, appreciate and tap into one another's skills and experience, offer and accept apologies without hesitation, and focus their time and energy on important issues instead of politics.

The most important action that a leader [e.g., a coach or a team captain or a veteran player] must take to encourage the building of trust on a team is to demonstrate vulnerability first. This requires that a leader risk losing face in front of the team so that others will take the same risk themselves.

What is more, team leaders must create an environment that doesn't punish vulnerability. Even well-intentioned teams can subtly discourage trust by chastising one another for admissions of weakness or failure.

Finally, displays of vulnerability on the part of the leader must be genuine; they cannot be staged. One of the best ways to lose the trust of a team is to feign vulnerability in order to manipulate the emotions of others.

2. This failure to build trust is damaging because it sets the tone for the second dysfunction: Fear of conflict.

Teams that lack trust are incapable of engaging in unfiltered and passionate debate of ideas. Instead, they resort to veiled discussions and guarded comments.

Teams that engage in conflict have lively, interesting meetings. They extract and exploit the ideas of all team members and solve real problems quickly.

It is key that leaders demonstrate restraint when their people engage in conflict, and allow resolution to occur naturally, as messy as it can sometimes be. Doing so leaves them hungry for resolution that never occurs.

3. A lack of healthy conflict is a problem because it ensures the third dysfunction of a team: Lack of commitment.

Without having aired their opinions in the course of passionate and open debate, team members rarely, if ever, buy in and commit to decisions, though they may feign agreement during meetings.

A team that commits creates clarity around direction and priorities. It aligns the entire team around common objectives. These teams learn from their mistakes and take advantage of opportunities.

The leader must be comfortable with the prospect of making a decision that ultimately turns out to be wrong. What the leader cannot do is place too high a premium on certainty of consensus.

4. Because of a lack of real commitment and buy-in, team members develop an avoidance of accountability, the fourth dysfunction.

Without committing to a clear plan of action, even the most focused and driven people often hesitate to call their peers on actions and behaviors that seem counterproductive to the good of the team.

A team that holds one another accountable ensures that the poor performers feel pressure to improve. These teams identify problems quickly by questioning each other's approaches without hesitation and establish respect among team members who are held to the same high standards.

One of the most difficult challenges for a leader who wants to instill accountability on a team is to encourage and allow the team to serve as the first and primary accountability mechanism.

Sometimes strong leaders naturally create an accountability vacuum within the team, leaving themselves as the only source of discipline. This crerates an environment where team members assume that the leader is holding others accountable, and so they hold back even when they see something that isn't right.

Once a leader creates a culture of accountability on a team, however, he or she must be willing to serve as the ultimate arbiter of discipline when the team itself fails. This should be a rare occurrence.

Nevertheless, it must be clear to all team members that accountability has not been relegated to a consensus approach, but merely to a shared team responsibility, and that the leader of the team will not hesitate to step in when necessary.

5. Failure to hold one another accountable create an environment where the fifth dysfunction can thrive. Inattention to results occurs when team members put their individual needs (such as ego, career development, or recognition) above the goals of the team.

A team that focuses on results minimizes individualistic behavior. These teams aren't easily distracted. They benefit from individuals who subjugate their own goals and interests for the good of the team.

Perhaps more than with any of the other dysfunctions, the leader must set the tone for a focus on results. If team members sense that the leader values anything other than results, they will take that as permission to do the same for themselves.

Team leaders must be selfless and objective, and reserve rewards and recognition for those who make real contributions to the achievement of group goals.

Like a chain with just one link broken, teamwork deteriorates if even a single dysfunction is allowed to flourish. The reality remains that teamwork ultimately comes down to practicing a small set of principles over a long period of time.

Success is not a matter of mastering subtle, sophisticated theory, but rather of embracing common sense with uncommon levels of discipline and persistence.