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Conflict Sounds So Harsh

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Fri Aug 20 2021

Conflict Sounds So Harsh
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Over the years, I’ve often been asked why I chose the word conflict in the Five Dysfunctions of a Team model. “Why not discussion or debate or disagreement?” It’s a good question, asked disproportionately by people from Canada, Minnesota, and Utah. For many people, the idea of conflict seems to imply something negative, even harsh. I suppose that’s why I think it’s the right word.

When it comes to building a truly cohesive team, there is no way to avoid being uncomfortable. Really uncomfortable. And yet, it is so tempting to try. “Let’s just agree to disagree.” “Let’s take that offline.” “I think we agree more than we disagree.” It is astounding to me the lengths many leaders will go to avoid that awkward moment when two people realize that they passionately disagree (also known as engaging in conflict) about something very important. And no matter how well those people know one another and how many times they have had those moments, it will always be uncomfortable.

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I’ve been married for almost 25 years, and my wife and I have had our fair share of healthy conflict. No matter how well I know her, how much I’m committed to her, and how confident I am that we’ll work through those moments, I am still not completely comfortable when it happens. And I never will be because I’m human. I cannot have a passionate, unfiltered, and completely honest disagreement with another person without some level of … what should I call it? Fear. Guilt. Anxiousness. Exasperation. Whether those emotions are rational or justified is less important than whether they are inevitable, and they are inevitable.

And so, I use the word conflict intentionally to prepare people for the full challenge it presents. Calling it a discussion, debate, or simple disagreement tempts them to strive to avoid the raw and difficult reality that conflict entails.

So, the next time you’re in a meeting and you find yourself trying to avoid one of those uncomfortable moments that goes beyond mere discussion, stop. Let everyone know that you’re going to overcome your fears and engage in real conflict and that you’re doing so for the good of the team. It will diffuse the inevitable tension that tempts everyone to back off and allow them to acknowledge their own fears. I find that this really works, even in Canada.

Teams that fear conflict:

  • Have boring meetings

  • Create environments where back-channel politics and personal attacks thrive

  • Ignore controversial topics that are critical to team success

  • Fail to tap into all the opinions and perspectives of team members

  • Waste time and energy with posturing and interpersonal risk management

Teams that engage in conflict:

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  • Have lively, interesting meetings

  • Extract and exploit the ideas of all team members

  • Solve real problems quickly

  • Minimize politics

  • Put critical topics on the table for discussion

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