the elephant in the room…

Conflict Resolution: don’t do it if you can help it

Every month, I’ve been writing one article for the F3 leadership series on LinkedIn. This month’s topic was “Conflict Resolution”.

Conflict is generally thought of as a bad thing, and therefore should be “resolved” as quickly and painlessly as possible. I’m going to argue that healthy conflict is actually vital to any high-achieving team.

Short-sighted leaders tend to want to quickly and quietly stamp out conflict wherever it pops up. “It’s the enemy of productivity,” they pronounce boldly. “It will tear us apart.” “We all have to get along, to agree, we can’t be arguing.” “I just don’t have the patience and time for disagreements on the team.” “I don’t have the stomach for arguments, it just isn’t nice.”

These well-meaning leaders don’t know how badly they are hurting the team.

Patrick Lencioni, that wise leadership sage, makes the shocking claim in his book (often cited as the bible of team building), the “Five Dysfunctions of a Team”, that healthy conflict is a vital part of any thriving and high-performing team. He lists Fear of Conflict as one of the 5 dysfunctions.

Not only that, but conflict avoidance isn’t an isolated issue. It works in concert with the 4 other dysfunctions. In other words, to solve Fear of Conflict, you have to work on the other issues. It’s bigger than just conflict avoidance.

There are a number of scientific studies that have demonstrated that teams that promote healthy conflict actually perform better, and make better decisions. (Reference “A Culture of Candor” and “Agreement and Thinking Alike: Ingredients for Poor Decisions”)

Here are the 5 dysfunctions, put positively. A functioning team:

  1. They trust one another
  2. They engage in unfiltered conflict around ideas
  3. They commit to decisions and plans of action
  4. They hold one another accountable for delivering against those plans
  5. They focus on the achievement of collective results

Lencioni recommends nurturing an environment within your team where conflict is not only tolerated, but healthy conflict is a vital part of getting the most out of your team.

Of course there is such a thing as unhealthy conflict, and you have to recognize that and resolve it.

Conflict resolution isn’t an isolated incident that only takes place once a relationship blows up, rather it’s a healthy part of the daily lifestyle of any highly functioning team. It allows openness and expression of personal opinion. It builds trust, buy-in, and commitment.

Conflict resolution takes place long before there is a blowup, by creating healthy conflict along the way and thus avoiding the need for “resolution”. If it’s gotten to the need for resolution, sometimes that’s too late.

For further reading on high functioning teams and healthy conflict:

The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni

The Ideal Team Player by Patrick Lencioni

This is part of 7 weeks of daily articles I’m writing while less mobile, recovering from surgery. This day #42 of 49. Below is the last post: