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Embracing the Storm: The Vital Role of Healthy Conflict in Building Resilient Teams

Updated: Jan 13

In the eye of a storm, it is difficult to remember that rain replenishes and winds can cleanse. Similarly, in the dynamic atmosphere of a thriving team, conflict is often the precursor to growth and unity.

As a leadership coach for the past 15 years, I have come to realize that fostering an environment where healthy conflict is not just allowed, but encouraged, is essential for creating robust and resilient teams. Patrick Lencioni, a thought leader in team performance, advocates that "all great relationships, the ones that last over time, require productive conflict in order to grow."

Why is healthy conflict so needed? Because without it, teams fall prey to the pitfalls outlined in Lencioni's seminal work, "The 5 Dysfunctions of a Team." The fear of conflict is the second dysfunction, a silent killer of open and transparent dialogue. This fear manifests as an artificial harmony that stifles innovation and honesty, and creates an environment ripe for passive-aggressive behavior and more intense and damaging conflict.

Healthy conflict, on the other hand, is the goal post that guides teams through the dysfunction. It creates a platform for vigorous debates, where ideas are challenged and refined, and where members are not just heard, but encouraged to speak with passion.

Healthy conflict isn't about attacking each other or causing trouble. It's really about having honest, direct conversations aimed at making the best decisions. It's all about listening to different opinions and using those varied viewpoints to make sure that the decision holds up – to make sure it's the best one for the team.

Research in organizational behavior supports this view. A study published in the "Journal of Applied Psychology" found that teams engaging in a moderate level of relationship conflict, when combined with high levels of task conflict, show increased creativity compared to teams with low levels of both forms of conflict. Therefore, it's not the presence of conflict that disrupts team performance, but rather how it's managed.

And this is where the concept of Extreme Ownership, introduced by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin, intersects. It states that leaders must own everything in their world, including the conflict. Leaders must set the stage for constructive conflict by fostering a culture of mutual respect and trust, where team members feel secure enough to disagree and confidently voice their concerns and ideas.

In my role as a leadership coach, I mentor leaders and teams on the art of navigating conflict. I teach them that communication isn't just about talking but listening with the intent to understand. It's about engaging in open and transparent dialogue, where every voice is heard to ensure collaborative success.

The goal is not to avoid the storm but to dance in the rain, understanding that in the wake of the downpour lies clarity and growth.

As Lencioni himself says, "When people don't unload their opinions and feel like they've been listened to, they won't really get on board." It is this boarding of the ship, despite the storm, that forges an unbreakable team.

I've often seen leaders almost ready to quit, right on the edge of ending key partnerships frustrated with the perceived behaviour of others. Then we sit down, set some rules of engagement, let everyone speak their intentions, and really listen to what they're trying to say. Before you know it, we're all on the same page, with a clear, shared goal.

The key point is this: we need to understand what's really driving each of us and question our initial assumptions.

That's how we move together towards something great.

So, let's be inspirational in our leadership. Let's challenge our teams to engage with their conflicts, not from a heart of war but from a heart of peace. By working through our disagreements, we'll come up with new, innovative ideas and build strong relationships that turn our team into a powerful and united group.

I will always urge leaders to embrace healthy conflict. It is through the fires of debate and the winds of disagreement that the strongest teams are forged. Let us not shy away from the storm; instead, let us steer into it, knowing that on the other side awaits the calm seas of progress and unity.


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