Enabling Healthy Conflict by Understanding the Conflict Continuum

Conflict Continuum

I just wrapped up a Five Behaviors of a Cohesive Team workshop with a new government client and have had a little time to reflect on the experience. As is the case with every team I’ve had the pleasure of facilitating, I learned something from them as they analyzed their team assessment results and developed action plans.

My first impression was that it was a team like many others I’ve met – they were obviously accomplishing a lot of valuable work day in and day out. Yet their team assessment results showed they had room for improvement in all five of the behaviors—trust, conflict, commitment, accountability, and results. Their team ranked itself in the low or medium range for all behaviors. My guess was that it would be even easier for them to get even more done if they were able to build on those key behaviors.

What became clear to them as they talked was that there was one key obstacle to becoming a more cohesive team: artificial harmony based on a lack of trust. In Patrick Lencioni’s book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, he explains artificial harmony as a terminus on a conflict continuum. At that end of the continuum, you see teams avoiding conflict. Team members do not surface issues so they continue to fester as people smile and “make nice.” On the other end, you see the type of mean-spirited attacks during conflict that can truly damage a team. The ideal conflict point is in between those two extremes—where teams can engage in productive conflict and resolve issues.

Early in our session, as we talked about the conflict continuum, I asked the participants where they thought the team was on the continuum. Those that answered said they thought they were at the ideal conflict point, which was a bit surprising given their assessment results. A few of the members were brave enough to vocalize their skepticism, thus keeping the discussion about artificial harmony alive throughout the remainder of their Five Behaviors of a Cohesive Team session.

On day two, after having some intense conversations about Trust and Conflict, I asked team members to individually mark where they thought they were on the continuum. This time, the majority of the results were (you guessed it) somewhere between artificial harmony and the ideal conflict point.

The team concluded that they didn’t yet have enough trust to resolve a lot of their thorny issues. They committed to working on building that trust and moving away from artificial harmony as one of their key action items. In about six months, the team will take a Five Behaviors of a Cohesive Team progress assessment to see how they’ve grown.

As I reflect, I am very inspired by that team. I witnessed a lot of very hardworking, intelligent public servants putting some real issues on the table. They taught me a lot about both their individual and collective courage and the power of Five Behaviors of a Cohesive Team to surface longstanding team dysfunctions.

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Gwen Voelpel

Gwen Voelpel has 20 years of experience in coaching and mentoring leaders at all levels of organizations. She has an undergraduate degree in communications, a graduate degree in public administration, and has served as an executive leader in several organizations. Gwen is an accredited Five Behaviors of a Cohesive Team and Everything DiSC Workplace Facilitator and a Certified Master in Training for The Leadership Challenge.
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