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Dysfunctions of a Business Intelligence Team: Fear of Conflict Facing Our Fears – Or At Least One of Them

Originally published September 21, 2010

Note from Maureen Clarry: This is the third article in a series discussing the five dysfunctions of a business intelligence team. For the first article, I wrote an overview of the five dysfunctions. In the second article, James Wood looked more deeply at the first dysfunction – the lack of trust. When trust is not present on a team, members do not feel comfortable sharing their opinions and ideas, leading to the second dysfunction – the fear of conflict. This article, written by Lorna Rickard, will explore how this fear of conflict manifests itself within teams and will offer four tools to mitigate this common dysfunction.

Dan wearily looks over at his clock and sees that it’s 2:30 a.m. Darn! This is the second time this week he has found himself worrying and unable to sleep. He’s concerned that his team of ETL developers is struggling with low morale and reduced output. One obvious manifestation of this is that team meetings, which used to be fun and collaborative – a place to share best practices and problem solve – have gone flat. It feels like people are just “putting in time.” And, increasingly members of the team are finding ways to get out of the meetings all together.

Although all members of his team are good performers, he can sense that the energy of the group is low, and increasingly he sees small groups huddled together, whispering. The newest member of the team, Chris, has a very powerful personal presence. He is articulate and logical and always presents himself in a very confident way. Business clients love him and he is able to quickly establish rapport and credibility with them.

Dan begins to wonder if Chris’ approach is having an impact on the team as a whole. Some time ago, one team member, Linda, felt strongly about how a new process should be designed and presented her idea very clearly. Chris was quick to respond with a forceful, logical, apparently indisputable reply. His response was so strong, that no one – including Linda – came back with a response. Since then, whenever someone ventures a contrary opinion or a new idea, Chris responds in a similar way. Dan comes to the realization that collaboration is almost impossible in this environment, but he’s not sure what his next steps should be or if this problem with meetings is even related to the larger problem.

In his book, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, Patrick Lencioni makes the case that in order for a team to maximize its effectiveness, it must be able to engage in productive conflict. The all-too-common fear of conflict does not mean that teams don’t discuss issues or even argue; it means that discussions are often destructive because they are laced with politics, pride, and competition. In his companion field guide, Overcoming the Five Dysfunctions of a Team, Lencioni outlines what he labels the “Conflict Continuum” (see Figure 1) to depict the terrain that teams confront regarding conflict.

Figure 1: Conflict Continuum
To the far left of the continuum, there is artificial harmony, where there appears to be no conflict at all. This is called artificial harmony because the conflict goes underground and is expressed in unhealthy ways. On the other end, expressions are mean-spirited personal attacks. Both of these extremes radically compromise commitment and energy and stifle decision making and accountability. Since healthy conflict is a productive and necessary component of groups coming to good decisions, he identifies the ideal conflict point as being just to the left of the center point between these two extremes. The acid test is: Are people holding back their opinions and thoughts?

So, what can Dan do to help his team deal with their obvious fear of conflict? The rest of this article will present four tools directed toward this end: 1) understanding different conflict styles, 2) creating norms around how the team will deal with conflict, 3) mining for conflict, and 4) offering real-time permission. It is important to remember the root of this fear stems from the lack of trust. So, for starters, read James Wood’s article http://www.b-eye-network.com/channels/1244/view/14128 on creating trust. It is from that foundation that these tools are seen as helpful in reducing the fear of conflict.

  1. Understanding Conflict Styles

    Dan could start by helping his team understand how people deal with conflict differently. Most of us do not stop and think about how we deal with conflict – we just do whatever comes naturally. These habits are well ingrained and seem to function automatically. They are based on patterns that were handed down by our families of origin, our personalities, and even the culture we grew up in. Exploring these dynamics and providing a space for each team member to share his or her “conflict profile” is a first step.

    There are two instruments that can be helpful. The first is the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument. It is a valid and reliable instrument that helps people identify their preferred conflict modes, among five that are identified. No mode is presumed better than another and you do not need a certified facilitator – it is very user friendly. It can help on two levels.

    Individuals can understand their preferred modes, and the team as a whole can look at how their combined preferences might impact team conflict and decision making. The instrument is very economical and can be obtained at www.cpp.com.

    The second instrument is the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), which helps participants look at their preferences on four scales. Each of the four scales come together to form a specific type, each with its own unique characteristics and strengths. There is a wealth of information and understanding that can be gleaned about each type, including specific analysis of how each type deals with conflict. You would need a certified facilitator to administer and help interpret the results. More information about the MBTI can be found at www.cpp.com.

    Almost universally, teams enjoy learning about themselves and how they are alike and different from their teammates. There is usually plenty of laughter and “aha!” moments as people de-personalize and accept their differences. The goal is to help team members get beyond acceptance to finding value in their different strengths. Either of these instruments and corresponding exercises would also help build the vulnerability-based trust that is critical for overcoming a lack of trust, as well as provide a foundation for creating team norms around conflict.

  2. Creating Team Norms

    Creating team norms should be done collaboratively by the team and should include agreements that all members are comfortable with. Examples are: "We recognize the value of healthy conflict in sound decision making; we encourage and support the expression of different opinions; we don’t shy away from issues that may include conflict; we do not engage in personal attacks; we strive to get all issues on the table, etc.” It becomes much easier for any member of the team to remind the group of its norms if they begin to stray.

  3. Mining for Conflict

    Many of us prefer to avoid conflict. Even if we understand theoretically that healthy conflict is necessary to maximize effectiveness, our tendency is to shy away from it. So, it will be necessary for the team leader, in this case Dan, to become a miner of conflict. That is, he will need to uncover buried conflict and urge team members to deal with these issues. It is the leader’s responsibility to be sure that important issues are not left beneath the surface. If the leader is also conflict avoidant, he or she can enlist the aid of other members of the team who are more inclined to do the mining.

  4. Real-Time Permission

    As the team begins to authentically engage issues, differences of opinion and approach will inevitably emerge. It is likely that some members will feel uncomfortable, maybe even guilty, as the heat rises. It is critical for the leader to step in – even interrupt – to remind them that what they are doing is okay. Something like, “Just a reminder, that this is exactly what we’re talking about. This is good. Keep going.” While this may sound paternalistic, it will help them overcome their anxiety and continue more confidently. You are likely to see relief as you encourage them to try new behaviors.
So was Dan correct in wondering if the behavior in meetings was somehow connected to low morale and output? Yes! Meetings are the primary context in which conflict might emerge; and if it is not present there, chances are it’s going underground and manifesting itself in lowered energy and lowered effectiveness. If Dan does not tackle this fear of conflict, it will inevitably lead to the next dysfunction, a lack of commitment, which will be the topic of next month’s article.


Briggs, Katherine C. and Myers, Isabel Briggs. The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. Mountain View, CA: CPP, Inc. and Davies Black Publishing

Lencioni, Patrick (2002). The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Lencioni, Patrick (2005). Overcoming the Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Field Guide. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Thomas, Kenneth W and Kilmann, Ralph H. Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument. Mountain View, CA: CPP, Inc and Davies-Black Publishing

  • Lorna RickardLorna Rickard
    Lorna Rickard is the Chief Workforce Architect at CONNECT: The Knowledge Network (CONNECT). She has twenty years of experience in organizational development, instructional design and facilitation. Prior to joining CONNECT, Lorna served as Director of Culture and Communications for one of the then largest reinsurers in the world. At CONNECT, she is responsible for assessing and advising client systems on cross-functional collaboration, and team and organizational effectiveness. Lorna has a B.S. in Investment Finance from California State University, Long Beach. Lorna can be reached at lrickard@connectknowledge.com.

Recent articles by Lorna Rickard



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Posted September 22, 2010 by David Green david@wardgreengroup.com

Good article, Lorna.

Conflict is uncomfortable for lots of people and I've found lots of teams have a norm of avoiding conflict. While things seem to go smoothly good ideas often are unsaid and problems happen that could have been avoided if "someone" had spoken up. Often someone who sees something nobody else is seeing. All this gets in the way of high productivity and can cause frustration, so you are "right on" about making conflict an OK thing and making sure that opposing ideas get surfaced. Avoiding is as bad for an organization as Aggression.

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