Five Dysfunctions of a Team: Conflict

This will be part of a 5-part series about the five common dysfunctions of a team to create more awareness on common issues and explore potential solutions. In case you’re not familiar with the framework, this book was written by Patrick Lencioni, founder and president of The Table Group (a firm that has been helping leaders improve their organizational health since 1997). This framework has stood the test of time and highlights important learnings for leaders in the workplace now more than ever.

The second pillar of the 5 dysfunctions is Fear of Conflict at work.

What is Fear of Conflict? According to Lencioni, this fear is an unwillingness to engage in productive and direct debate that ultimately lends itself to growth through discomfort. Unfortunately the higher up the corporate latter you go, the more you will find people who avoid conflict.

There’s a difference between productive versus destructive conflict. Healthy conflict in the form of disagreeing, challenging and questioning each other can build resilience and strength among teams, ultimately allow teams to reach their full potential. The point of healthy conflict is to find the right answers and make the best business decisions, not to be right or wrong. In other words, there is a level of humility needed to be able to have healthy conflict. Destructive conflict is about mean-spirited attacks and can turn personal.

Here’s How Fear of Conflict at Work Can Feel:

  • Intimidating, especially when the opposing party is more senior, better connected, or more likely to be given the benefit of the doubt by HR and others. (Read between the lines: a privileged person.) If there is low psychological safety in your organization for healthy conflict, it can escalate conflict into political warfare very quickly and we all know how that ends for most people. Employees end up having to choose their battles wisely and filter what they say with great caution.
  • Isolating, as you’re not always sure who you can trust during moments of crisis. In confiding to a colleague, you may be opening yourself up to gossip and defamation of character. But navigating conflict alone can lead to mistakes, missteps, and long-term trauma that will take years to un-do. Unfortunately, most people are cautious with who they trust, thereby isolating themselves from others even more.
  • Exhausting, as fear of conflict requires vigilance at all times. Not only do employees have to watch what they say in front of others but they also need to be on the watch-out for people who may be bringing conflict to them. This kind of vigilance and fear of conflict is detrimental to people’s health. Whether it’s rage, fear, or a sense of injustice, your health and well-being will likely take a hit if you have a fear of conflict at work. You will toss and turn in bed, re-read every email before sending it, and second-guess your decisions. The person who suffers most in this situation is you.
  • Like Groundhog day. When teams avoid topics, they will circle around the same issues again and again in meetings without every making a decision or finding a solution. Sound familiar?

Ways to Reduce Fear of Conflict:

  • Practice non-violent communication to listen and speak. Non-violent in this context means it doesn’t come off as critical, judgemental, harsh, defensive, or “I’m right, you’re wrong.” This type of communication is proven to help lower the temperature during moments of conflict and approach the other person in a non-threatening way. The power of non-violent communication is that is spreads the power across individuals rather than giving power to only one party. It allows us to connect with empathy and ultimately creates more bridges with others in the long-term. For more details, check out this book.
  • Create psychological safety to have a direct conversation. Whether it’s going out for a coffee 1:1 or giving someone a call, try to create the right psychologically safe environment to have the conversation with the other person. This is especially true if larger meetings aren’t deemed “safe” enough to have these conversations directly. That being said, if you are a leader in charge of facilitating bigger meetings then consider creating a psychologically safe environment for debates in the meetings you can control. With a few guidelines in place, it can help drive more fruitful and honest conversation with everyone in the room.
  • Empathize with suffering. In his book “How to Fight”, Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh shows us a mindful way to fight. It starts with self-compassion about our own suffering, and meeting our own emotional needs to soothe our emotions. By taking care of our own emotions and suffering, we are able to better handle conflict with others. Empathizing with our own suffering helps us understand that all humans suffer, thereby allowing us to feel more empathy towards other people. This then helps lead to a path of reconciliation rooted in mindfulness on a higher level than we can engage in when we are reacting from a place of impulsive anger.
  • Role of a leader: oftentimes, leaders will try to protect team members from being hurt and therefore prematurely interrupt disagreements which prevent team members from developing the skills they need to handle conflict in a healthy way. In the long-term, this can be detrimental to the team’s development. Instead, the leader should demonstrate restraint and see if team members are able to reach resolution within healthy boundaries. In addition, the leader should demonstrate healthy willingness to engage in conflict to role-model this behavior for their teams.

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