Conflict Avoidance is a Warning Signal

The absence of conflict may be a sign that something is wrong with your team. This may sound counter-intuitive at first, but it’s true. In The Five Dysfunctions of a Team,  author Patrick Lencioni sets up a pyramid of indicators of team dysfunction, the second tier of which is lack of conflict (we’ll get to the first in a moment).

While at first it might sound nice to be in a conflict-free environment, it is actually uncomfortable, because what it means is that people are stifling themselves. Here’s what it looks like: boring meetings where the participants are so disengaged that they don’t bother debating the issues or considering alternatives; ineffectual meetings where nothing gets done and everyone is too nice; office environments in which disagreements are not voiced openly, but indirectly and often in the form of gossip. In each case, the participants avoid the discomfort and risk of open disagreement or conflict. The result: work product suffers, because strategies and plans are not adequately vetted and alternatives not seriously engaged.

At the root of conflict avoidance is lack of trust (Lencioni’s first dysfunction). If you don’t trust your team, leadership, or the organization, you won’t feel confident that you can speak your mind and receive a respectful hearing.  Disagreeing with leadership, a manager, or a co-worker involves going out on a limb and taking a risk. Members of a trusting team know they will not be punished for having a different view from that of their colleagues. They are confident that their team is robust enough to withstand disagreement and they trust the decision-making process. If, after full debate, their view does not prevail, they also are more likely to support the plan because they have had the opportunity to fully explore the alternatives.

And here’s a bonus: if well-managed disagreement is an indicator of trust, it is also a way to build trust. Teams who have weathered conflicts  come out the other side to find their relationships stronger and more trusting. So the next time a disagreement arises — welcome it as an opportunity to strengthen your team and improve your results.