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A Software Engineer’s Leadership Lessons from the Book “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team,” by Patrick Lencioni

Vijay Patel

Lead Software Engineer, EPAM India
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What was suggested as supplementary reading to a senior software engineer preparing to lead a new team turned out to be a new lens through which to view his colleagues with fresh eyes and think about his team’s behaviors in a different way. We hear from Vijay Patel, Senior Software Engineer at EPAM in India, about the leadership lessons he learned from Patrick Lencioni’s book, “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team.” Let’s find out what they are. 

I had been planning to apply for my assessments for the next level in my career. In one of those discussions about planning and preparing for my future roles, my manager advised me to read the book “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team,” by Patrick Lencioni. The book reviews common problems within any team and how to avoid or respond to these challenges. It shares a perspective for anyone managing a team or preparing to manage one.

When I picked up the book, I was expecting a how-to guide typical of management books. But, to my surprise, it focuses on the gripping story of a teacher who was made CEO of an information technology (IT) company. Like a thrilling movie, it kept me glued wanting to find out what happened next. Subsequently, I finished the book in one week.

For those who are already managing teams, despite having every ingredient – from sufficient resources to a clear plan of delivery, and realistic timelines to support top management and clients  – sometimes one still fails to make the expected progress. What could be the issue? What could have gone wrong in a team of “rock stars”? How can you create an environment where everyone contributes? How can you make sure everyone is running in the same direction rather than going in different directions at different speeds? To some extent, this book shares that it is not the strategy or the technology, but teamwork that is most fundamental to an effective organization.

Here are the learnings I am taking away from the book that could also be valuable to you. 

Avoid an Absence of Trust

Within a team, trust means confidence that your peers’ intentions are good, and that there is no reason to be protective or careful around the group. In an environment where team members can openly share their views, weaknesses and mistakes, they can have healthy discussion to build on those gaps and brainstorm solutions and ideas.

Here is a simple approach for how the author suggests we can overcome this dysfunction and create a bond

Absence of trust Trusting teams
Hide mistakes and weakness Admit mistakes, learn and expose weakness
Do not ask for help Ask for help
Do not help outside an area of expertise Try to help as much as possible or redirect
Jump to conclusions without listening to everyone Listen to everyone and collectively work towards a decision
Hold grudges Offer and accept apologies without hesitation
Avoid spending time together Enjoy working as a group
Don’t Fear Conflict

Over time, great relationships require productive and healthy conflict to grow and improve. Knowing the difference between healthy debates and destructive fighting or interpersonal politics is important to ensure people can focus on ideas, concepts and solutions rather than on individuals. If people fear conflict and do not fight for their ideas, innovation is difficult. 

Teams that fear conflict Teams that engage in conflict
Everyone “sleeps” in meetings Everyone participates in lively, interesting meetings
You get back-channel politics and personal attacks Extract and explore ideas from all team members
Ignore controversial topics required for team Solve and discuss every problem quickly
Fail to touch into everyone's opinions Consider and hear everyone’s opinions
Waste time and energy by delaying and re-addressing conflicts Put critical topics on the table
Be Committed

Commitment is a function of two things: clarity and buy-in. When everyone’s ideas are considered and heard, the decision to move forward involves everyone on the team. Even if the decision is not in line with an individual’s idea, everyone agrees and unites behind the decision and commits to achieve the team goal.

Team fails to commit Team that commits
Create confusion between direction and priority Create clarity about direction and priority
Opportunity gets lost due to delays and lack of commitment Align entire team towards the opportunity and hit it hard
Breeds lack of confidence and fear of failure Learn from mistakes
Revisits discussions and decisions again and again Move forward without hesitation
Encourage second guessing among the team members Changes directions as needed
Missing deadlines and realizing it is too late to be able to fix them Discusses struggles and contingency plans
Take Accountability

Accountability refers to the willingness of the team members to raise issues when there is a problem and holding each other accountable for their contributions to team goals and “enter the danger” to resolve it.

A team that avoids accountability A team that holds one another accountable
Avoid highlighting the poor performers and creating standards for poor and good performers Ensures that poor performers feel pressure to improve and provide required things for the same
Do not consider alternatives or problems for the poor performers Identifies the potential problems by questioning each other and addressing them
Missing deadlines and key deliverables Establish responsibilities and account for the same
Places burden on specific people Divide the load and make everyone responsible
Lacks clarity Shift rewards toward team from individuals
Pay Attention to Results

The ultimate dysfunction of a team is the focus on individual goals as compared to the team’s goal. It needs to be clear that the success of the team depends on common goals and not on the individual’s achievements.

A team that is not focused on results A team that is focused on results
Fails to grow or remains stuck at where they are Grow and achieve what was committed
Fails to meet results and focus is on an individual’s goal Achieve teams’ goal and the focus is on team’s goals
Distracted and no clear vision for team goal Avoid distraction and sail in one same direction
How Does This Translate to Real Life?

In the context of my work, I could relate to many of the dysfunctions and saw how practices like the scrum framework help overcome these challenges. Every person defines their work and timelines and is on board with the team on deadlines. If they think that there is going to be a spillover, they inform and discuss it with their product owner as soon as they see it. In all planning meetings, individuals are encouraged to raise a hand if there is any confusion, and confirm they are good with the work that needs to be done, the effort involved and the deadline. Daily stand-up and demo meetings are a great way of making people accountable if we do not meet expectations or if there are any gaps. Also, when a person is done with their task, they can help their team members to complete their commitments, contributing towards team goals. And, in every sprint retrospective, we identify the output of the sprint, reflect on the quality of the sprint, and try to improve each time.

Currently, I am part of a team that came together during the COVID-19 pandemic, with each member working remotely. We had never met each other in person, had no personal level connections, and our discussions were confined to work. This limited our collaboration capability. I started joining meetings five minutes early to catch up with people and build a more connected and trusting relationship. After a week or two, I could see people sharing jokes and interacting more than before and there was now positive energy.

I could totally relate to someone who avoids getting into conflicts and that was the case for my team as well. They hardly discussed any conflicting topics and, if they did, only one person seemed to be talking. Just as the author suggests with trust, we can overcome these hurdles and be able to speak freely.

Many recommendations the book suggests focusing on a select set of core principles to be incorporated over time. A team succeeds if they know how to identify gaps and bridge them with trust, having healthy conflicts, holding each other accountable and focusing on the team goal.

The book vehemently promotes sacrificing personal goals for team goals, which may not resonate with some team members. How I see it is that individuals who are focused on their own goals will end up sacrificing the team for their own success. Overall, I have met many of these characters in my career and can relate to many of the human behaviors, as well as how they lead to dysfunction in a team. You will find trust building, conflict resolution and sharing in this book that leads to a leap in performance together. What was suggested to me as a supplementary read turned out to be a new lens to look at real-life characters, behaviors and individuals.

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