conflict in the workplace

Building conflict in the workplace – yep, building it

If you’re a regular reader of our blog, you’ll know we believe wholeheartedly in helping leadership teams to become wildly successful. And to do that, we believe wholeheartedly in the leadership model designed by Patrick Lencioni in his book, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team.

In our last post we outlined the Five Dysfunctions in a positive light as The Five Behaviors of a Cohesive Team, and we dove into the first behavior – building trust among team members.

You’ll recall we emphasized that the trust we’re trying to achieve is vulnerability-based trust – not predictive trust. We do that because the next step for truly cohesive teams is to foster conflict in the workplace around ideas and if we don’t have solid levels of trust, our suggestions on conflict are going to be difficult.

Even with trust, you might already be cringing at the thought of conflict in the workplace.

The confusion is in how we define conflict. We’re talking about ideological conflict – debate around ideas, not people. You see, this productive conflict isn’t about “winning an argument” but rather, as Lencioni puts it, it’s the “humble pursuit of truth.”

Productive conflict is the effort to ensure the team is considering all necessary points of view before making decisions.

When conflict isn’t built on trust, it gets personal. Conflict without trust is manipulation and petty politics. But, when a team has trust, conflict is about not holding back differing points of view, not holding back concerns, not having to calculate the cost of disagreeing.


“Great teams do not hold back with one another. They are unafraid to air their dirty laundry. They admit their mistakes, their weaknesses, and their concerns without fear of reprisal. It’s as simple as this. When people don’t unload their opinions and feel like they’ve been listened to, they won’t really get on board.”

Patrick Lencioni


How do you know if you’re lacking conflict in the workplace?

Well, first of all, your meetings are boring. People sit in silence and silence is taken as acceptance or agreement. Everyone is polite and nods in agreement.

More so, disagreements occur after the meeting instead of at the meeting. Or worse, people triangulate. What’s triangulate? It’s when Person A has a view in a meeting and no one challenges her but then Person B says to Person C, after the meeting, “Can you believe how bad that idea was from Person A? I never know what she’s thinking. There’s no way I’ll do it that way.”

You get the idea – triangulation is when people on a team have personal conflict as well as ideological conflict behind each other’s backs. Instead of raising the conflict with the person, they commiserate about it with someone else. It’s the number one cause of death for relationships and for organizations and it’s a sure sign your team is avoiding conflict at the table.

Another sure sign that you’re lacking conflict is that things don’t get done. Or decisions change and no one ever knows for sure where things stand.

Do you find sometimes you thought a decision was made but later you find out others have concerns? Or they took a different approach because it seemed better to them? Or, you thought someone was going to do something as part of the overall project and they didn’t realize it?

This often all comes back to not debating the issue thoroughly enough, before making the decision (which leads to the next challenge of folks not committing to something they don’t really support.

So how do you build a culture of conflict around ideas?

Share your view that conflict is welcome and useful.

Have a conversation about it. Be aware of your own feelings about conflict – how do you model it? Are you encouraging it? Are you diving into conflict around the ideas and not the people?

Have everyone on the team take a behavior profile like Everything DiSC.

There is a wealth of profiles out there (we love Everything DiSC) but most will help you understand how you, and others, react to conflict. Understanding each other’s reaction can help to work with each other.

Define what healthy conflict looks like.
When we work with client organizations in, The Five Behaviors of a Cohesive Team program, we help the team figure out for themselves what healthy conflict looks like to them. Healthy conflict will differ from team to team, organization to organization, and culture to culture. Having an open and honest conversation helps to set the parameters and make everyone more comfortable.

Mine for Conflict.

One of the best ways to boost the level of healthy conflict is to mine for it. That is, when you suspect there is some unshared disagreement lurking in the room – call it out. Gently demand that people come clean on their concerns and their disagreements.

You might even start this around the first conversation about conflict. If your organization hasn’t fostered conflict before, there will likely be some dissenting opinions on it – see if you can bring those out onto the table.

Saying something like, “I know conflict can be uncomfortable and we haven’t encouraged it previously so I’m sure some of you don’t think we should encourage it – this is a great opportunity to start. I’d love it if someone would disagree with me and start some conflict around the topic, with no risk.”

Celebrate conflict in the workplace when it occurs.

That’s right, celebrate. When you’re in a team meeting and two people are debating, arguing, challenging each other’s ideas and points of view, interrupt them momentarily to let them know that what they’re doing right now, is GREAT. Thank them because the debate they’re having is going to lead to better decisions and is going to help the team and the organization be stronger.

So, it’s Valentine’s Day in much of the world and we’re promoting conflict in our blog. That might seem counterintuitive but, in fact, we think it’s right on point.

Because, you see, holding back conflicting ideas leads to personal conflict — the bad kind of conflict. It leads to resentments, frustration, exasperation and working behind each other’s backs at cross purposes.

All of that can happen with loved ones too. So on this Valentine’s Day, it might be a good time to ask yourself, “Am I being honest and forthcoming with my partner? Are we able to have honest, challenging conversations to make our relationship stronger?”

Something to think about.

Coach’s Questions

How good is your team at conflict? When was the last time your team members felt comfortable openly challenging each other’s ideas for the good of the company? What can you do to help it along? What might hold you back?