When teams avoid conflict at all costs, it actually impedes their effectiveness. A survey found that 91 percent of high-level managers believe teams are the key to success. But the evidence doesn’t always support this assertion. Many teamwork-related problems remain hidden from view, including fear of conflict – the second dysfunction of Patrick Lencioni’s The Five Dysfunctions of a Team (Jossey-Bass, 2002).
Fear of Conflict in Teams
Lack of trust within a team easily leads to fear of conflict, confrontation, criticism and/or reprisal. When teammates and leaders are seen as potential threats, people adopt avoidance tactics. This sets up an artificial harmony that has no productive value. There is no true consensus, just a risk-preventing sentiment of “yes” feedback. True critique is avoided. Genuine solutions are not explored, and the team functions poorly.
This dynamic allows a domineering team member to take over, with a unilateral-control mentality. Dominant personalities believe they’re always correct, and anyone who disagrees is wrong and disloyal. Independent ideas are stifled. Negative feedback creates discomfort. People’s spirits and self-esteem eventually plummet, crippling group performance.
As a coach, I am in a position to hear from leaders who deal with team conflicts. And many of them aren’t comfortable themselves dealing with disputes. But as a leader, they must teach their teams that discomfort is sometimes part of the job. People can get used to feeling uncomfortable, to some degree. It’s part of doing business and a key dynamic among coworkers.
Conflict-resolution training can help leaders encourage productive debate without hurting feelings or wounding character. Trust grows, and difficult ideas can be processed to reach consensus on solutions. Once again, it’s up to you as a leader to set an example by developing this vital leadership skill.
It’s just as important to recognize when you and your team members are agreeing too quickly and to assess whether consensus is authentic. Teams often avoid discomfort by falling into “groupthink;” instead of debating solutions, members “go along just to get along.”