Use conflict as a health check for your team
4 min. read
“To engage in productive conflict has ONE purpose—to produce the best possible solution in shortest period of time. Healthy conflict is a time saver.” – Patrick Lencioni, business author and speaker
We’ll come back to this quote shortly. First, to get a bearing on people’s feelings—positive and negative—about conflict, here are some headline findings from our new research, Conflict at Work.
We found that around half of respondents (52%) had a mixed response to ‘Is conflict positive or negative?’
From the remaining 48%, almost twice as many responded negatively than positively. 31% said that conflict always or generally gave negative results, while 17% said it always or generally gave positive results.
Men were more likely to see conflict positively than women. They were also more likely to have positive feelings about it. 14% of men mentioned feeling ‘excited, energized, or challenged’ by conflict, but only 4% of women did.
Regarding personality, people with a preference for Extraversion saw themselves as significantly better at managing conflict than people with a preference for Introversion.
But if conflict is crucial for a team’s development, performance, and health, its positive value needs to be more widely understood and believed. It can’t just be the preserve of men and Extraversion types.
So, what are the arguments for seeing conflict positively? Here are some examples showing why healthy conflict really does matter.
Stuck at storming
In Bruce Tuckman’s model of team development, there are four stages. They are:
- 1. Forming
Stage one (Forming) describes the typical behaviors of a new group or team as they come together. People start to find their place, tend to perform individually, are probably overpolite, and are perhaps a little unsure or unclear of their roles.
Stage two (Storming) describes the challenges and stormier relations that emerge when team members move past the cautious participation of the Forming stage. Storming is when team members start to express views and opinions more readily. It’s also where conflict is likely to appear first.
In Tuckman’s model, Performing is conditional on Storming being resolved. But what makes teams get stuck in the Storming stage?
Overcoming team dysfunction
The words at the beginning of this blog come from Patrick Lencioni, author of the best-selling book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable.
In his model, an effective team fully understands and overcomes the five dysfunctions of a team. To meet its potential and truly behave like a team, all five dysfunctions need to be overcome.
Absence of trust
The first dysfunction is absence of trust. In Lencioni’s view, trust is the bedrock for all teams. Having trust means team members can be vulnerable with each other, knowing that those vulnerabilities won’t be used against them.
Without trust, there is no team.
The next dysfunction—the second dysfunction of a team—is fear of conflict.
Fear of conflict
The fact that fear of conflict appears so early in this model shows how fundamental it is to team success. Fear of conflict will tend towards absence of conflict. Lencioni also describes this dysfunction as artificial harmony. Teams with this quality will:
- Have boring meetings.
- Create environments where back-channel politics and personal attacks thrive.
- Ignore controversial topics that are critical to team success.
- Fail to tap into all the opinions and perspectives of team members.
- Waste time and energy with posturing and interpersonal risk management.
(taken from The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable by Patrick Lencioni)
This has a direct impact on the third dysfunction of a team, which is lack of commitment. A team that collectively agrees but individually or privately disagrees with the team’s decision simply cannot commit to it. At least, not with any authenticity.
Groupthink might sound like one of George Orwell’s Newspeak words from his dystopian novel 1984, but it was popularised by Irving Janis, a social psychologist, in the early 1970s.
The more a team or group of people is similar, friendly, and familiar with each other, the less likely they are to challenge each other. This is the essence of groupthink, and it refers specifically to decision-making.
In this situation, agreement gives the impression of everyone being on the same page. And, on one level, they are—but for the wrong reason.
Agreement hasn’t been reached through critical discourse or exploring different perspectives. It’s been reached because preserving interpersonal harmony is the priority, not the work-related interests and objectives of the team.
If groupthink sounds too sinister a concept for office workers, what about simply speaking up?
Dr. Gail Fann Thomas, in our podcast episode on conflict management, says, “There's been a lot of really good research lately about people not speaking up, and there can be a lot of reasons why people don't speak up. I do a lot of coaching with helping people speak up, or coaching with senior leaders who created some kind of an atmosphere that people don't want to speak up because they’re so strong and competing, or they've got such strong ideas that no one's going to bother.”
And, if no-one’s speaking up, we can be fairly sure there’s no listening going on either. At least, not the deep, active listening that builds trust.
Should we beware the team that looks too good to be true? Maybe we should, yes. Nice paintwork is no guarantee of solid foundations.
While it seems contradictory to get conflict management skills when there is no conflict, it could also be exactly the right reason for gaining skills. The above examples show the flipside of harmony and the potential consequences of effortless consensus on team health. They help team members see that conflict really does have value.
And if conflict has a place in a well-functioning team, conflict management skills do too.
Want to learn more about healthy conflict?
Listen to The Myers-Briggs Company Podcast episode on conflict management
Learn about the new TKI Team Report for helping teams understand conflict styles
Watch this webinar about managing conflict effectively