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Successful Teams Embrace Conflict

(posted: November 4th, 2016)

As a leader, one of the best things you can do for your organization, firm, or company, is to create highly-functioning, effective teams.

Teamwork, as Patrick Lencioni says, "is the ultimate competitive advantage." To develop your most effective, collaborative team requires building foundational elements. Lencioni visualizes this as a pyramid, with each of the Five Behaviors of a Team building on the ones beneath.

In my previous post I talked about the importance of trust as the bedrock for your teams. Without trust, none of the other elements will really work.

In this post we'll tackle conflict, the next step up the pyramid and one of the most misunderstood components of great teamwork.

But Don't We Want to Avoid Conflict & Negativity?

Negativity, yes. Conflict, no!

For many people the word, "conflict" is synonymous in their experience with anger, tension, personal attacks, discomfort, alienation, winning OR losing.

However, not all conflict is negative. Conflict can be an authentic discourse around ideas and concepts, not people. Conflict is constructive when it forces important issues into the open, increases involvement of team members, and generates creative solutions. Great teams have these difficult conversations, getting all the facts on the table so that they can make informed, better decisions.

If embracing the word 'conflict' in your corporate culture seems unreasonable, refer to the process as a debate or discussion. The important thing is to ensure people are not holding back their opinions.

At one end of the conflict continuum, when there is fear of conflict, there is often artificial harmony on a team because people are afraid to speak out, fearing repercussions or afraid to hurt feelings. At the other end is personality conflict, which can lead to personal attacks. Both of these can be destructive to a team, resulting in loss of creativity, polarization, low morale, wasted time and deepening divides.

Between the two extremes is a zone of constructive conflict, where issues are opened up and discussed freely, increasing clarity, building cohesiveness, and increasing involvement and buy in by team members.

Embracing Constructive Conflict on Your Team

Building trust, in the leader and in each other, creates a foundation for conflict to be constructive. When you have trust you can start to create a culture that understands and values conflict. It's important to recognize that team members will have different conflict styles - leaders need to foster and facilitate the conflict, stepping in to moderate if discussions become ad hominem attacks or someone is clearly overwhelmed by the level of heated debate.

"Teams that trust each other are not afraid to engage in passionate dialogue around issues and decisions that are key to the organization's success. They do not hesitate to disagree with, challenge, and question one another, all in the spirit of finding the best answers, discovering the truth, and making great decisions."

~Patrick Lencioni

In addition, it's wise to set some explicit norms for team meetings and for how conflict will unfold. You want to get some clarity on how each team member expects each other team member to engage in discussion and debate.

You will have some norms or ground rules that are specific to the needs of your team, but some suggestions include:

  • Speak one at a time.
  • Ensure that all ideas are valid and respected, whether they are agreed with or not.
  • Come with an open mind and stay curious.
  • Paraphrase the other person's ideas before speaking.
  • Consider whether you are in the right state of mind to deliver feedback.
  • No personal attacks: separate the person from the position.
  • Use simple language and respectful tone; be aware of body language.
  • Allow debate to be more important than hitting every point on the agenda.
  • Decide that silence = disagreement, since often it is misconstrued as agreement.
  • No "post meeting" meetings; all discussions happen only when the team is together.
  • Consider a facilitator when things are highly charged.

"Teams that engage in unfiltered conflict are able to achieve genuine buy-in around important decisions, even when various members of the team initially disagree. That's because they ensure that all opinions and ideas are put on the table and considered, giving confidence to team members that no stone has been left unturned."

~Patrick Lencioni

A leader needs to embrace the power of conflict and set the stage for engaging in healthy debate. Teams that use conflict effectively will make better decisions, develop strong team commitment, and ultimately be more successful and competitive.

Challenge Yourself
  • As a leader, do you embrace or avoid conflict?
  • What do you do to encourage your teams to have open, honest discussions?
  • What else do you find important to include in your team norms or ground rules?

Let's talk about your teams! Patrick Lencioni and Wiley have created a great tool, the Five Behaviors of a Cohesive Team™, that is DiSC-based and helps you to build a high-performing team. Contact me and lets explore how we can increase your team effectiveness!

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