Fighting it out - why conflict aids teamwork

Published Feb 21, 2017 | Written by Jeremy Knight

So I've been set some homework recently by the savvy Dean Breyley of Grow or Die, who's helping us master EOS (if you're a business leader and you don't know about EOS go here to learn more; you won't regret it!). 

My homework was to read "The Five Dysfunctions of a Team" by Patrick Lencioni, ahead of our off-site annual at the end of next month.  As with Lencioni's other works, the book is written as a business fable, this time addressing the need to repair a broken leadership team that is holding back growth in a fictional tech firm in Silicon Valley. 

Its style makes it purposely accessible, making the book a handy tool for leaders to address areas of weakness in their own executive or management teams. And to that end, the second symptom in the hierarchy of dysfunction that the main protagonist, Kathryn, identifies in her new team is a "fear of conflict".  

Now, such a fear as a weakness of your team might, of course, sound wholly counter-intuitive.  But if, as Liane Davey suggests in her article (below) for the Harvard Business Review, a team displays the opposite behaviour then the results can be much worse for the business it's seeking to lead; after all: "If your team agrees on everything, working together is pointless".

What Davey underlines in her post is that we have long been encouraged to think of successful teams working in a mellifluous manner, with all progress made on a smooth and easy trajectory.  But does such an uneventful journey create the kind of success we are pursuing for our organisations?

Lencioni doesn't believe so; his book laments the kind of "artificial harmony" that exists in teams that don't trust each other enough to challenge and debate issues and decisions. As he puts it: "In a work setting where team members do not openly air their opinions, inferior decisions are the result."

And Davey echoes his warning. As she points out, whilst teams might seek collaboration, there needs to be room for contention, questioning or conflict among the members, so that what is achieved has been truly deliberated and honed through the honest sharing of opinion and concerns.

"What we need is collaboration where tension, disagreement, and conflict improve the value of the ideas, expose the risks inherent in the plan, and lead to enhanced trust among the participants."

So, I continue with my homework for Dean and look forward to some passionate argument at our off-site in March; and I trust that we will achieve a better end once opinions are voiced, assumptions questioned and the proverbial "dust settles" on our healthy business debate. Bring it on!


It’s time to change your mindset about conflict. Let go of the idea that all conflict is destructive, and embrace the idea that productive conflict creates value. If you think beyond the trite clichés, it’s obvious: Collaborating is unnecessary if you agree on everything. Building on one another’s ideas only gets you incremental thinking. If you avoid disagreeing, you leave faulty assumptions unexposed.

As Walter Lippmann said, “Where all think alike, no one thinks very much.” To maximize the benefit of collaborating, you need to diverge before you converge.

Unfortunately, our distaste for conflict is so entrenched that encouraging even modest disagreement takes significant effort. I find that three specific techniques help people embrace productive conflict. Carve out some team development time to do these exercises before your next contentious discussion.

Published by Jeremy Knight February 21, 2017
Jeremy Knight