Lencioni and Business Books

Patrick Lencioni. The Three Signs of a Miserable Job: A Fable for Managers (and their employees). Jossey-Bass, 2007. 272 pgs

Patrick Lencioni, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. Jossey-Bass, 2002. 227 pgs.

Two books in one review? I know, shocking!

But, in this case, I think it is appropriate. Patrick Lencioni is quite a successful author, publishing 8 unique books, and several spin-offs from those as well, and many of which have been best-sellers at various times.

Before I get into these two books specifically, I need to say a few words about business/leadership/management books in general.

There are thousands, if not more, business/leadership/management books available. Most of them promise basically the same things: fix problems at work, make you more efficient/effective/money, help your company do better, etc. There are many different ways this is approached, some more helpful than others (in my opinion), and I am not going to go into detail in either explanation or critique. However, there is something else they all have in common: A modern, capitalist, secular world-view. This should come as no surprise to anyone, nor should we expect anything different when picking up a book like this. But, it needs to be said that there are many elements in this world-view which are deeply anti-Christian.

In terms of goals and assumptions, these kinds of books tend to be entirely materialistic. I think most of us are used to this, and so we either don't see it, or it doesn't bother us. Fair enough, but make sure that you are not falling into the trap of agreeing with these assumptions or living out of them. I think much more important questions to ask have to do with who these books would shape us to be. Take leadership as an example. When was the last time you heard leadership presented in light of Matthew 20:20-28 (and similar passages)? Even Christian books on leadership do not often take into account what it means to be a 'leader' as one is, first and foremost, a follower of Christ. So one must always ask how the image of humanity and personhood and the good life match up with the image of these things we have in Christ. Usually they do not line up very well. I could say more, but I won't.

Does this perspective mean that these books have nothing to teach us? Absolutely not; we can learn a great deal from this. They merely require the reader to have a discerning heart and the wisdom of God, given through scripture, in order to critically examine the books and pull from them what is guide, while leaving behind the distorted world-view upon which the book is based.

Alright, introductory comments out of the way, what about these two books in particular?

In each of these books Lencioni takes on one issue (job satisfaction and teamwork) and tells a story in which his simple principles for working on these things effectively are tried, tested, and accomplished. Thus the word 'fable' in both of his subtitles. The majority of each of these books is taken up with this 'fable' with a short section afterwards which outlines in point form his 3 or 5 points, how to fix them, what the role of the leader/manager is in doing so, and why they are worth looking at.

So, what are the three signs of a miserable job and the five dysfunctions of a team? Well, I'm glad you asked.

The Three Signs of a Miserable Job:

1. Anonymity: Employees feel anonymous when their manager has little interest in them as people with unique lives, aspirations, and interests.

2. Irrelevance: Employees cannot see how their job makes a difference. "Every employee needs to know that the work they do impacts someone's life - a customer, a coworker, even a supervisor - in one way or another.

3. Immeasurement: Employees are unable to assess for themselves their contributions or success, and have clear idea what their goals or the signs of success are.

The Five Dysfunctions of a Team:

1. Absence of Trust: Team members are not vulnerable or open with one another about mistakes and weaknesses.

2. Fear of Conflict: Because team members are not trusting, there is no real conflict. Instead there are only veiled and guarded comments, and out of meeting discussions.

3. Lack of Commitment: Team members are not buying into decisions (though they may feign agreement). This also results from the first 2, as without conflict and trust, people do not feel heard or like the decision is their own.

4. Avoidance of Accountability: Peers are not calling each other on bad behavior or actions or failures to meet goals. Again, a result of the first 3.

5. Inattention to results: Team members are focused on individual goals rather than groups goals.

Right, so what do I think about these books? Overall, Lencioni's ideas are great. I think he is right on with both problems. If people don't know why they are working, how to know if they succeed, and if they don't feel cared about then of course they will be miserable. Not only that, they will not improve. As for teams, any one of those five issues can kill a teams ability to work together. The points Lencioni makes are fairly straightforward and correct, and he does not hide this in his books. He makes no claim to reveal some ultra-secret thoughts that will revolutionize teams/job satisfaction. Instead he makes the point numerous times that the solutions are simple but, for some reason, we just don't get it.

What about the books? Well, here I have to say that Lencioni is brilliant and I don't like it. The majority of his books are taken up with a story. Within this story comes the motivation for the reader to take Lencioni's points seriously. However, the stories are not well written. They are filled with hackneyed phrases like "little did he know...", horrible foreshadowing, no creativity, shallow characters, and on and on it goes. How, then, do these books succeed? Simple. The people reading them are NOT reading them for the story. They are reading them for the business principles. The stories only function insofar as they express these principles in a practical, easy to follow, way, and, even better, in a compelling and motivating fashion. These things Lencioni does well.

His main characters, who put his business principles into practice, are perfect. I mean that. They are not perfect as characters, or literature, they are, quite literally, perfect. They are the kind of leaders and managers we all would want to be: confident, knowledgeable, creative, inspiring, motivational, and, most of all, successful! Even their 'flaws' turn out to either be for the good, or else they are not really flaws at all. For example, Kathryn, the main character of Five Dysfunctions is supposedly a terrible public speaker, but on numerous occasions within the book she proves to be highly skilled in the sub-disciplines of public speaking (like telling a good story). One quickly wonders how her public speaking is a flaw at all. Brian, meanwhile, has to figure out what makes him a good manager (somehow he has gone an entire career without thinking about it?!?). Faced with this challenge, he spends a couple months running a restaurant and suddenly has all the answers which he can then go on to successfully apply to larger and more complicated organizations around the world (all the while supposedly maintaining semi-retirement).

The cumulative effect is that one reaches the end of the story with feelings like "I can do this." "It doesn't seem that hard." "If that can succeed like that, then I want it." And "With such positive effects around the corner, what am I waiting for?" And this is precisely what Lencioni wants the reader to feel. If the reader really is a manager, or leader, or someone in a position to implement the changes he recommends, then these feelings will, I suspect, often push those people into taking some kinds of action.

Like I said, Lencioni is brilliant. Despite his inability to write a good story, he has taken the story, as a motivational/inspirational tool, and fine-tuned it to the point where he is accomplishing the effects he desires in spite of the poor quality of his stories as stories.

Overall then, these books are good. If read carefully, and for the principles they espouse, one can learn from them. And if you get frustrated with the stories (like I did) you can just skip to the end and read his brief explanations at the end (which, incidentally, provide as much, if not more, detail and explanation about his principles and how to apply them than the entire stories do. Basically, unless you really want the stories, don't buy these books. Just read the end and take notes, get them a library, something; otherwise you are paying for a lot of writing that is not really worth the paper its on).

1 comment:

Seth Resler said...

We're big fans of Lencioni! In fact, we're hosting a free webinar with Pat on July 1st. If any of your readers are interested, we'd love to have them. There's more info here: http://www.mylinkage.com/GILD/2010/patrick-lencioni-webinar