Fear of Conflict (Article 2 of 5)

Embracing Healthy Conflict: The Second Dysfunction

In our exploration of Patrick Lencioni’s five dysfunctions of a team, we began with the critical foundation of trust. Trust is an important anchor that allows teams to engage openly and vulnerably, setting the stage for the next element of high-performing teams: healthy conflict. Today, we focus on the second dysfunction – fear of conflict – and how overcoming it can transform team dynamics and yield favourable outcomes.

The Value of Healthy Conflict

When trust is established, team members feel comfortable enough to voice their thoughts, challenge ideas, and get passionately involved in discussions that matter. This is what Lencioni refers to as healthy conflict. It is a productive debate that stimulates creativity, prevents stagnation, and fosters a culture that embraces diversity in perspectives and produces the best ideas. Teams that lack trust tend to avoid disagreement, which results in false harmony that hinders growth and problem-solving.

Healthy conflict is not about personal attacks or destructive arguments. Instead, it revolves around debating different perspectives constructively. This kind of engagement ensures that all voices are heard, and decisions are made. In his work, Lencioni asserts, “Teams that fear conflict are incapable of tapping into all the ideas and perspectives of team members, limiting the potential for growth and innovation.”

The Causes and Effects of Fear of Conflict

Fear of conflict can arise from various sources. It may stem from personality traits or upbringing, where individuals are taught to be agreeable and to “not rock the boat.” Past experiences where conflict led to negative outcomes, such as damaged relationships or professional repercussions, can also contribute. Additionally, there are organisational cultures that implicitly discourage dissent, valuing conformity over creative tension. These environments lead to team members withholding their opinions, resulting in meetings that lack energy and genuine engagement.

The consequences of avoiding conflict are significant. When teams shy away from conflict, they often make poor decisions because critical issues are not fully explored. The lack of open debate means that problems are often swept under the rug, only to resurface later, potentially in more damaging ways. Furthermore, teams that avoid conflict often experience unresolved tension, leading to passive-aggressive behaviour and reduced morale. Liane Davey, popularly known as the “teamwork doctor,” refers to this collection of consequences as a conflict debt.

Creating a Space for Healthy Conflict

Just like we emphasized in the previous discussion about building trust in teams, encouraging healthy conflict requires intentional effort and a supportive environment. Here are some strategies that leaders can implement to create a conducive environment:

  • Model Constructive Conflict: Leaders should set the tone by engaging in and encouraging open debates. By demonstrating that disagreements can be productive and respectful, they create a safe space for team members to voice their opinions without fear. Establishing clear guidelines for conflict helps ensure debates remain respectful and focused on ideas rather than individuals. Ground rules might include active listening, no interruptions (using processes such as Legotla), and maintaining a solution-oriented mindset. This approach is explored in depth in “Conversations that Matter,” one of the WorldsView Academy LeaderShift modules. Leaders can further encourage team members to speak up by directly soliciting their opinions and acknowledging their contributions, ensuring all voices are heard.
  • Embrace Diverse Perspectives: Foster an inclusive environment where diverse viewpoints are welcomed and valued, enhancing decision-making and creating a culture where team members feel comfortable expressing opposing opinions. Misguided notions often portray teamwork as a happy walk in the park, suggesting that good team players should always agree. This expectation can lead to friction when disagreements arise, causing unproductive conflict. Instead, cultivate an understanding that tension within a team is natural and beneficial. Picture a team in a marketing department, creative and analytical members may have different approaches. Creative members might push for innovative and bold campaigns, while analytical members focus on data-driven strategies and metrics. If both perspectives are not occasionally in tension, it means the team isn’t fully exploring all possibilities. Normalising this kind of productive conflict helps prevent team members from seeing diverse thoughts as troublesome. Instead, they can recognise it as a vital part of a dynamic and effective team. You may promote diversity and inclusion in teams by constantly promoting open dialogue and building teams with diverse backgrounds and talents. It is important to note that while some team members’ voices may be loud and dominant, others may fade into the background. As mentioned in the first point above, it is the leader’s obligation to elicit opinions from people who do not typically speak up, demonstrating that their perspectives are relevant and valuable. When people feel their perspectives are valued and heard, they are more engaged, reducing the risk of wrecking up that conflict debt and paying up interest in the form of passive aggressive, disengaged employees and worse, losing talent.
  • Provide Adequate Training: Equip team members with the skills to manage and resolve conflicts constructively. While some people may naturally possess these skills, others need to learn and unlearn certain behaviours. Effective training should include techniques for communication, negotiation, and conflict resolution, as well as promoting the ability to give and receive feedback. The key is customising training content to address your team’s unique challenges, making it more relevant and effective. Teams are built on individuals coming together to achieve a common goal, each bringing their own individuality. It is important to first master “self” before understanding others and how the team works. That’s why in Purposeful Teams and Teams that Talk we Incorporate the Enneagram to help team members become more self-aware and understanding of one another. With the aid of this tool, our delegates can identify their own conflict patterns and triggers and gain understanding of the motivations behind their actions, default methods of handling conflict, and preferred ways of working with others. As a result, the team has a shared vocabulary to discuss and resolve differences in a productive manner, improving their ability to collaborate.

In order to ensure that delegates are engaged in the learning you need to provide interactive and practical workshops, there should also be some role-playing exercises and simulations (i.e delegates practice feedback conversations relevant to their work and prepare for a difficult conversation they need to have in “real life”), to help with real-life application of these skills. At Worldsview Academy, our programs incorporate these methodologies in exercises, providing hands-on approaches that lead to sustained behavioural change. 

As we continue this series on team dysfunctions, it’s crucial to remember that overcoming the fear of conflict is essential for unlocking your team’s potential. When the foundation of trust is built, and conflict is embraced, teams move from a state of artificial harmony to one of genuine collaboration and innovation. By modelling healthy conflict, embracing diverse perspectives, and providing targeted training, leaders can build high-performing teams where healthy conflict thrives. This enhances team dynamics and ultimately mitigates the risk of accumulating conflict debt. Our senior facilitator, Liezel van Arkel, often encourages delegates to “embrace trust-based conflict and engage in robust debates.” 

As we move forward to the third dysfunction – lack of commitment – we will explore strategies to ensure that team decisions lead to unified action and shared goals, further strengthening the foundation of high-performing, cohesive teams.