Why Teams Fail, Part 2: Fear of Conflict

How Fear of Conflict Causes Teams to Fail

This is the second installment in our 5-part Why Teams Fail series in which we cover common dysfunctions that cause a breakdown in team dynamics. In Part 1, we outlined the first dysfunction a team faces: trust, or lack thereof. Team dysfunction starts with lack of trust, which leads us to the focus of this week’s story: How Fear of Conflict Causes Teams to Fail.

Without emotional trust between team members, if there is any passionate debate about a subject or business issue, it’s likely to be all about being on the winning side: looking good in front of the boss, or just winning, because you don’t like to lose.

There won’t be a lot of listening going on and there will be a lot of conversation manipulation taking place. There will be team members who simply don’t participate in the conversation.

The debate will not be honest, it will be driven by personal goals and agendas and being right will be more important than finding the right solution. Worse than all that, without everyone participating in an honest debate, the dreaded consensus issue raises its ugly head. More on this in a bit.

When the trust does finally exist, as described here, you will discover the power of good conflict.

The Power of Good Conflict

The Power of Good Conflict

This type of conversation takes the form of passionate, unfiltered debate about tough issues without anything being taken as personal. If you don’t agree, you speak up, because that’s what this team does. If you have a serious difference of opinion, you get it on the table, because you know — even if its wrong — everyone will listen and take it seriously. You aren’t afraid to get in someone’s face if they are not participating or if they missed a deadline, because you all trust each other and know it’s all business. Nobody lets it get personal.

And this is where it gets uncomfortable.

The Fear of Conflict

We humans are conditioned all our lives to avoid conflict. We’ve all heard the phrase, “Go along to get along,” meaning go with the flow, avoid conflict and everyone lives in harmony. Be nice to people, the golden rule…you get the idea.

The result of this lifetime training to avoid conflict creates a serious hesitation to say what you are really thinking when discussing something in a meeting. “Well, I don’t agree but I know she will blow up if I say anything…”; or, “Last time I disagreed with him he got really insulting.” Much easier to just not say anything. You just hang back and listen, because it’s the safe comfortable way and you know nobody will call you on it.

Artificial Harmony Stifles Productive Conflict

Artificial Harmony Stifles Productive Conflict

So, let’s look at the meeting dynamic when the first two dysfunctions are in play (fear of being vulnerable and fear of conflict). Let’s say there are 6 people around the table representing the different teams in the company. The CEO is considering hiring a few more sales people and wants to talk about it.

You happen to know that sales aren’t the issue; rather, engineering is way behind in the new product and the current sales people really don’t seem to be trying very hard. The CFO knows that the budget is already strained and adding a couple of sales people is going to be economically dangerous.

The conversation, however, is dominated by the head of sales and the CEO who seem to be supporting each other in the decision. The last time you said anything contrary to what the head of sales wanted, you got your head bit off, so no way you are jumping in. The CFO rarely participates in these conversations, preferring to apply pressure on the CEO after the decision is made outside the meeting environment and there aren’t other people around. Two members are on their laptops not really paying a lot of attention. Finally, the CEO says something, like, “great conversation,” and gives the OK to hire the new sales people.

This, by the way, is a very real example.

The Lack of Real Debate

This isn’t an aggressive example, this is more like the norm in corporate America. The lack of any real debate for fear of some kind of retribution is very real and leads to the millions of bad business decisions made every day. The lack of real debate is seemingly caused by any number of issues, but really all seem to lead to one reason: A lack of trust.

You didn’t participate because you simply didn’t trust that your input would be welcome, listened to and taken for what it is — a difference of opinion — and you didn’t want to expose yourself to being verbally attacked again. The CFO didn’t participate because he doesn’t trust that anyone in the room will appreciate or understand their views, and it is so much easier to change the CEO’s mind later in private.

The lack of any meaningful, passionate debate means the engineering issue remained below the surface; that, and the engineering manager was too busy on their laptop to really participate, plus they tend to be pretty shy in these meetings anyways. And nobody likes getting their head bit off for speaking up. It’s just not worth it.

Does this sound familiar to you? My guess is it probably does. Again, we are dealing with human protective behavior that has been trained into us from birth. We, given the choice, will typically take the easy, comfortable path when available — remaining quiet in a business meeting is definitely the more comfortable path.

The Function of Drama

Function of Drama

One of the major reasons the business meeting is so boring and monotonous is due to the absolute lack of drama in the form of passionate and heated debate about important business decisions. Think about this. I’m sure we can all remember meetings where a conversation got heated between team members. Suddenly everyone sits up a bit and starts to pay more attention. Usually this is like watching NASCAR races to see if there is a crash, we want to see the drama and how this all ends. For a few minutes, it gets pretty interesting. Then someone steps in and diffuses the situation, because it starts to get uncomfortable for everyone. The meeting goes back to boring.

Now this doesn’t mean that business meetings have to turn into screaming matches, arm waving and red faces, but if the team is in trust mode, it’s OK if it does on occasion. In fact, it makes meetings way more interesting when the team members are free to engage with each other this way. After the passionate debate is over, the trusting team just goes back to work and way better decisions are made because of the increased information flow.

The Role of Conflict Miner

Mine for conflict

When the team leader senses a lack of participation, it is their job to mine for conflict. They have to start asking questions and forcing people out of their comfort level to get the conversation going.

The role of conflict miner can actually rotate and be assigned to different people for different meetings or discussions, so everyone learns how to do it and can see the effectiveness.

It is important to identify when a discussion might be getting uncomfortable and take the time to remind the team that this type of heated debate is acceptable and necessary, and that it isn’t personal. These reminders continue to reinforce the trust between team members and can help reduce the tendency of people to want to step in and protect another member who may be feeling the heat.

We do this with our children, so the ingrained desire to protect will emerge at times. Don’t let this happen as it can prevent the development of coping skills on the team. The sooner the team accepts that this is healthy debate and not attacks, the better and more productive the meetings will become.

So, lack of trust leads to lack of conflict. And this leads to the third dysfunction, which we will discuss in part 3 on Why Teams Fail.