Building Teams by Embracing Conflict

The very last thing team members and leaders typically want to address is discord within the team. While conflict can feel scary, awkward, and distasteful, when managed thoughtfully and openly, it can be the very thing that helps build teams. In The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, Patrick Lencioni identifies the second of five team dysfunctions as “fear of conflict.” One might assume that it’s more often conflict gone amok that destroys teams, but Lencioni theorizes that it is the inattention to conflict that does teams in. Teams that experience “fear of conflict” avoid touchy topics, refrain from questioning each other, triangulate, and ultimately build resentment. They do this in large part because they experience the first dysfunction, which is “absence of trust.” When team members don’t trust each other and aren’t vulnerable with one another, they can’t engage in productive conflict.

While conflict is uncomfortable even for the most functional teams, team members need to push themselves out of their comfort zones and engage in passionate dialogue, challenge each other, and question one another. To do this, they need to work on building trust first and foremost. Without trust, no authentic dialogue can emerge. Part of the work of building trust is helping team members see each other more comprehensively and less stereotypically by sharing experiences, passions, backgrounds, intentions, and more. Team activities like preference assessment, values exercises, and personal history discussions help team members experience each other beyond the day-to-day operations and build connection. Trust also grows when vulnerability is encouraged and team members learn that they can express their fears, acknowledge their mistakes, and ask for help. As trust grows, teams are more willing to face conflicts and manage them productively.