Team Gestalt and the 5 Dysfunctions

Patrick Lencioni's The Five Dysfunctions of a Team (here's the GetAbstract abstracted version) describes five Maslow-like pyramid levels of dysfunction of a team, from most basic to highest order: Trust, Fear of Conflict, Commitment, Accountability, and Results.

To build a strong team, a good leader needs to bring counterpoints to each of these dysfunctions and build a culture that allows the team to bond and Gestalt, or become greater than the sum of the parts.

Management Zen Experienced During Television Production
My first career was in television production.  Multi-camera studio shoots.  When the noon news went live, our cameras were up and going, whether we were ready or not.  Every production was an opportunity to Gestalt--become more than just the production plan.  Every nerve was firing and everyone's senses were on high alert.

The productions that went without a flaw received many kudos, but the productions where we had to deal with unforseen circumstances in some brilliant way--if we got out of them with flying colors--we celebrated.  It was those productions, when we were up against the clock, in adverse conditions, where something unexpected happened, where we really came together to create miracles.

If daily you have an opportunity to enter that Gestalt state, where everything is clicking at an optimal level, then you know how to recognize what the feeling is and what you're trying to get back to.  Conversely, if you deal with long development cycles where you only enter do-or-die mode every 18 months or so--then chances are you have felt the Gestalt state, but it has been so few and far between that you don't remember it.

I assert that we, as Leaders of teams, should be focusing on how to bring our teams into that Gestalt state as often as possible.  It doesn't mean you need to manufacture fire drills, but it does mean you need to get the team exercising the "end game" skills more often than just the end game.  The more opportunities for flexing the muscles that can bind the team together and make them click--the more times it'll actually happen.

Gestalt and the Five Dysfunctions
To bring your team to a place where they can Gestalt requires a solid foundation that the team operates on.  This is where the five dysfunctions serve as good milestones on the path toward a Gestalt state.

The first level of dysfunction is around trust.  James Kouzes and Barry Posner, authors of The Leadership Challenge (GetAbstract version), a seminal book on the five fundamentals of great leaders, write: "In almost every survey we've conducted, honesty [...] emerges as the single most important factor in the leader-constituent relationship." (p.32).

One of the outward manifestations of trust is the perception of a leader's honesty.  If a leader is exhibiting traits of honesty: genuineness, authenticity, and vulnerability, then the individuals interacting with that leader will report greater trust of that individual and their decisions.

Actions you can take: Repeated trustworthy behavior motivates.  Act in ways that are consistent with your ethical values; leaders go first, so be the first in on a risky item or controversial topic; show some vulnerability, and invite others to do so by example.  Then wash, rinse, repeat.

Fear of Conflict
The second level of dysfunction, once you get past trust, is calling bullshit.  You have to build a team ready to engage in constructive discord--a team willing to challenge each other in a way that is healthy and brings you to better solutions because you've identified pitfalls.

The problems people express today are the land mines you may hit on the road tomorrow.  Treat them seriously and engage the whole team in moving from acting like a patient--ouch, doctor, it hurts when I do that--to walking into your office as the doctor: "Here are the problems we've identified, and here are some ideas for how they could be resolved."

Conflict should be embraced courageously.  Meet it head on when it appears, with no after-the-fact passive-aggressiveness.  It also means giving personal feedback in private--some conflicts are inappropriate to air in front of the entire group.

Actions you can take: When your next big controversial issue comes up, don't shirk it, call it out right away and then reframe the problem in a positive context.  Instead of "Those designers are giving us horrible designs!" reframe and ask, "How can we be more clear about our customer needs and requirements?  How can we own this problem together as a team instead of making it an us versus them?"

Lack of clarity or buy-in prevents decisions from sticking, because individuals aren't clear on what is specifically being required of them.

Steve Roesler's edited version of the Tannenbaum and Schmidt leadership decision-making model: tell/sell/test/consult/join, is a useful approach to assuring commitment.

First, start with the actual perspective of the manager, yourself, who is coming to the team with an issue to resolve.  Then ask yourself where on the Tannenbaum/Schmidt model you can approach the team.  If you have an issue that the team truly has the ability to consider and not act on, then you can bring it to them as a join decision--where they can choose to take it on or not.  If you have an issue that they must take on, that's a tell.

I've observed this doesn't work: managers approach the team with a consult, but then devolve to a sell, and then further to a tell.  Those conversations leave most demotivated, with no clear commitment.

It's always better to sit down and make it clear exactly where you're at with an issue, "Hey folks, this is a tell right from the top, so get your gripes out now and then let's turn to discussing how to deal with this the most productively."

Actions you can take: Be candid, and honest, when an issue must be addressed, and call it that right away and move forward from there.  Look for other issues that truly are flexible and make sure to be clear to the team, "Hey, here's an issue we really can treat like a consult or a join..."  Otherwise, if you only ever call out your tells, your team may feel like those are the only times you're clear with communicating the priority and commitment level required for an issue.

Four questions drive accountability: What are we accountable for?  Who is accountable?  To whom are they accountable?  And what are the consequences?  Some answers get us above the line--being accountable for results not just activities; understanding that delegating responsibility doesn't absolve us from accountability; being accountable first to ourselves, our ethics, our morals, then wrangling the other stakeholders; and delivering consequences that are in-line with the behaviors we want to incent.

Below-the-line behavior is blame and excuses.  The focus needs to be on results.

As individuals move up and master the art of delegation, a false assumption is that delegated activity then transfers accountability.  Ultimately, the individual made responsible for something is accountable to you, and you are accountable for the task as it was given to you by your boss.  Two different parties holding parties below them accountable, usually with different expectations.

Actions you can take: When trying to gain commitment of the team, be clear and use explicit language on who is accountable for what and to whom.  Then discuss what consequences will result from which outcomes, both positive and negative.  Encourage a team culture where individuals feel safe to step-up and take accountability for results, especially mistakes, and then make sure you follow-up to do the same for positive results, too.

An individuals' career is ultimately their responsibility.  In the pursuit of advancing their status, it may erode the focus on collective results.  Ultimately, the team wins or loses together.  Having measurements and metrics that are focused (ex. 3 top issues, not 20) keeps the team clear on what results are expected.

In one of my first companies, I made the newbie management mistake of allowing every individual to work on their own pet projects, thinking each one could potentially be a goldmine.  Meanwhile, our only product that was out the door and making money was floundering due to sales leads that were going unattended to.  Having clear success measurements for results around the product and its sales, and holding the entire team accountable for that specific success, would have assured that all individuals would have turned their attention to the top priority and we would have had drastically better results.

Actions you can take: Whenever you have an assignment, specifically ask, "What will success look like here?  And how will we measure it?"  And have a board, even if its just a white board in the hallway, where you write the success measurement and its current status.  (Ie. Number of widgets upgraded: 1,000).

Finding Your Gestalt State
Once you've climbed and overcome the Five Dysfunctions of a Team pyramid, you're now in an optimal place for the team to reach their Gestalt state.  It will be brief interludes where you will really feel like everything's aligned, clicking, and you're meeting deadlines with flying colors.  Watch for it, see if you can call it out when it happens, and try to internalize what it looks like, and feels like, so you can encourage everyone to try to find that state again.  It's fleeting and impressive.  It will often happen when you end up with an emergency or hot issue that will require you to scramble.

Using transparent, open communication, with clear decision making and accountability, will get you to solving the problems ahead with greater alignment and quality of work--because you'll be able to spend more time on satisfying the customer need and less time on fixing team dynamics.