Productive Team Conflict

Author's note: This column, the second in a series on overcoming team dysfunction, is based on the book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni.

In The Five Dysfunctions of a Team (Jossey-Bass, 2002), author Patrick Lencioni examines five negative behaviors that render teams ineffective. My Aug. 14 column, "Overcoming Team Dysfunction: Trust," discussed the need for trust among team members. Trust is the foundation of a healthy team.

Once trust is established, a leader can implement productive team conflict. There is a difference between conflict and productive conflict. Many people avoid conflict at all costs. This is unfortunate since, as Lencioni writes, "all great relationships, the ones that last over time, require productive conflict in order to grow. This is true in marriage, parenthood, friendship, and certainly business."

Productive conflict has three characteristics. First, productive conflict can only exist in an atmosphere of trust. When team members have the team's best interest in mind, conflict is directed at the issue, not the individual. Second, productive conflict is void of personal attacks and innuendos. Third, the primary factor that distinguishes productive conflict from unproductive discord is its purpose. Lencioni writes, "The only purpose [of productive conflict] is to produce the best possible solution in the shortest period of time."

When team members have differing opinions on the best solution, frustration often results. Frustration commonly leads to passionate conversations. Unfortunately, team members who aren't accustomed to passionate interactions may take offense. Likewise, mean-spirited team members may try to pass off a personal attack under the guise of being passionate.

Passion is encouraged, but personal attacks are unacceptable. Since productive team conflict can be emotionally charged, teams who are new to productive conflict will benefit from someone who can discern personal from passionate.

It's impossible to resolve any issue without honest discussion. "Contrary to the notion that teams waste time and energy arguing, those that avoid conflict actually doom themselves to revisiting issues again and again without resolution," Lencioni writes. The issues that continue to come up repeatedly are likely issues where productive conflict has never taken place. Whatever the reason, one or more team members have repeatedly avoided healthy conflict, often in an effort "not to rock the boat."

To promote productive conflict, Lencioni suggests such tools as Mining, Real-Time Permission, and Personality and Behavioral Preference Profiles.

Mining puts sensitive issues on the table and forces team members to work through them to resolution. In each meeting, one person is assigned as what Lencioni refers to as the "miner of conflict." This role requires objectivity to promote passionate productive conflict while identifying and disallowing personal attacks. This exercise also requires a commitment to stick to the discussion until the team determines a solution.

Real-Time Permission consists of interrupting the conversation when team members begin to retreat into their shells. Teams new to this practice will naturally shut down when the conversation gets heated. When someone notices this, it's helpful to break in and remind all team members the objective is to resolve the issue. The team is encouraged to pursue healthy disagreement void of personal attacks. Lencioni recognizes the paternalistic nature of this tactic, but writes, "It is a remarkably effective tool for draining tension from a productive but difficult interchange, giving the participants the confidence to continue." The other component of Real-Time Permission comes at the end of the meeting when the leader reminds the team of the benefits of healthy conflict, points to the positive outcomes achieved at the meeting and encourages the team to engage in this behavior in the future.

Personality and Behavioral Preference Profiles usually include a section that addresses how the individual responds to conflict. One profile that specifically looks at conflict, the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument, "allows team members to understand natural inclinations around conflict so they can make more strategic choices about which approaches are most appropriate in different situations," Lencioni writes.

If your team avoids conflict, consider the benefits of productive team conflict. One passionate, issue-focused, boat-rocking session could end countless inefficient hours of hand wringing.

Jane Goude is a freelance writer in Lexington, SC, with 12 years of rehab and management experience. Column consultant Mitzie Derrick, OTR/L, is manager of occupational therapy and speech-language pathology at Spartanburg Regional Medical Center in Spartanburg, SC.

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