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Conflict in Teams

by eyepopslikeamosquito (Bishop)
on Jun 12, 2017 at 13:29 UTC ( #1192583=perlmeditation: print w/replies, xml ) Need Help??

Following on from Working Solo and in a Team, this meditation discusses how to handle conflict in teams, so that everyone is pulling in the same direction.

Vulnerability and Trust

I'm a genius and always the smartest person in the room. I also am the greatest expert on every topic ever as soon as I've thought about it for at least five seconds, none of my subordinates could possible know more about anything than me so I should always be micromanaging them and telling them exactly what to do in every situation, and if you think what I said blatantly makes no sense that's just because you are so simple compared to my vast intellect. Well, if we failed in our goals it's obviously the fault of all my various subordinates and not me, because after all, I'm awesome!

-- perldigious describes a dysfunctional manager he once worked for

Vulnerability and trust are crucial to good teamwork. Everyone in the team needs to be vulnerable. Everyone. To freely admit: "I don't know the answer", "I need help", "I stuffed up, sorry". Sadly, just one team member with a toxic attitude, like perldigious's dysfunctional manager above, destroys teamwork.

Reinforcing points made in Psychological Safety, Patrick Lencioni, in a talk on Team Dysfunctions, gives some real-world examples of teams becoming dysfunctional when just one team member could not be vulnerable. And it's worst of all when that one non-vulnerable team member happens to be the team leader.

How to get everyone in the team to be vulnerable and acknowledge their weaknesses? According to Patrick, there is only one way: The leader must go first!

Why is vulnerability and trust so important?


Without trust, conflict is politics. With trust, conflict is the pursuit of truth.

-- Patrick Lencioni in The Five Dysfunctions of a Team

Conflict is normal. Conflict is expected. Part of the human condition. Handling conflict effectively is the primary reason why trust is so important in teams. Without trust, conflict tends to become personal or political; with trust, conflict is the pursuit of truth, finding the best solution.

It's vital for the team to not hold back, to disagree passionately when required. To be honest to each other. And respectful. Is arguing a "waste of time"? No! No argument means no commitment! Of course, the arguments must be focused on finding the best solution, never personal or political.

Two Types of Trust

Building trust across cultures notes the two types of trust:

  • Cognitive trust: based on the confidence you feel in another person's accomplishments, skills and reliability. This is trust from the head.
  • Affective trust: arises from feelings of emotional closeness, empathy or friendship. This is trust from the heart.
For teamwork, affective trust is the most important. BTW, the trust hormone Oxytocin is associated with affective trust - and also implicated in Dog-human emotional bonding.

Disagree and Commit

Intel has a saying: Disagree and Commit. Curiously, without disagreement it's difficult to get commitment and cohesion. In general, when people have a chance to express their point of view and have its pros and cons heard and appreciated, they are more likely to accept and support a differing approach.

In contrast, conflict that persists after the group has made a well-examined decision is often harmful. At a certain point in a project, the potential benefit of changing approaches is less than the disruption caused by changing direction. At that stage, commitment is required. Early disagreement is welcome, but then the team must unite behind a shared goal.

-- Disagree and Commit: The Risk of Conflict to Teams

Have Backbone; Disagree and Commit. Leaders are obligated to respectfully challenge decisions when they disagree, even when doing so is uncomfortable or exhausting. Leaders have conviction and are tenacious. They do not compromise for the sake of social cohesion. Once a decision is determined, they commit wholly.

-- Amazon 13th Principle

Though Intel and Amazon share the same "Disagree and Commit" slogan, they appear to have a different emphasis. Intel emphasize teamwork and cohesion (when people have a chance to express their point of view and have its pros and cons heard and appreciated, they are more likely to accept and support a differing approach) while Amazon focus on faster decision making ("I know we disagree on this but will you gamble with me on it? Disagree and commit?") and innovation (for more innovation, you need disagreement, not consensus).


Peer-to-peer accountability is the best kind of accountability. When people don't commit, they don't hold each other accountable. Leaders must be willing to hold people accountable, not just on quantitative issues (KPIs), but behavioral ones too.


References Added Later

July 2021: Added "Two Types of Trust" section.

Replies are listed 'Best First'.
Re: Conflict in Teams
by zentara (Archbishop) on Jun 12, 2017 at 15:45 UTC
    Yeah, too much conflict in human teams. Eliminate the human element, replace with AI software. Team Strategies are always simple to solve, because you have a single common goal as a team. AI can do that. Resistance is Futile .... the Eternal Ohm :-)

    I'm not really a human, but I play one on earth. ..... an animated JAPH

      I will simply assume that you are holding your human tongue firmly in your human cheek, and therefore say that I would be “ROTFLMAO™” right now, were it not for the uncomfortable thought that you just might be serious!   (The hair on your head – such as it may still be – isn’t pointy, is it?)


        "...human tongue..."

        Before a done rave matures the prolonged salary. How can a consent respect a popular voltage? The prompt cold combats human tongue™ underneath her divided bundle. When will human tongue bay throughout a wind? Why can't the some misfortune leak behind human tongue? A face prevails opposite human tongue.


        "Die echte Satire ist blutreinigend: und wer gesundes Blut hat, der hat auch einen starken Teint. Was darf Satire? Alles." (Kurt Tucholsky)

        «The Crux of the Biscuit is the Apostrophe»

        Furthermore I consider that Donald Trump must be impeached as soon as possible

        Resistance is futile puny human, ... against the Eternal Ohm :-)

        And I am serious, the AI is going to start showing it's hand in controlling us all. Like the song says Someone to watch over me :-) As my best buddy and smart idea friend says to me, it's when they stop watching you, that is when you worry.:-)

        I'm not really a human, but I play one on earth. ..... an animated JAPH
Re: Conflict in Teams
by sundialsvc4 (Abbot) on Jun 12, 2017 at 15:22 UTC

    Excellent comments, Eyes.   Now, I happen to work as a software consultant, so I usually wind up walking into either “active fires” or, more likely, “smoking ruins.”   The project has usually reached and passed its turning burning-point.   Heads have rolled, and the best people have quit.   So, one of the first things that I try to do is to look at the team’s work-flow organization, or lack thereof.

    Superficially, this is (for instance) their ticketing system.   But, on a larger scale, it is the entire process of how changes and new tasks are introduced into their team workflow – and how they are vetted before being formally introduced.   I also look at who within the business the team effectively answers to:   usually, this person is part of the marketing department.   Is the team’s approach pro-active or reactionary?   How much do people believe that they actually have an influence on how their department’s daily activities are run?   Why do they think that, when starting on a particular work-order, they actually possess all of the information they need in order to complete and then to test it?   How many of the subsequent “bug reports” are actually design changes, or the ex post facto reactionary discovery of defects or omissions in the design?

    I have actually very rarely encountered an actual “know-it-all,” although I have encountered a fair number of people who initially struck me as being very obnoxious.   I once unfortunately worked with a team that I privately thought of as “Mark, Carl, and their Ten Little Indians,” because the bean-counters had swallowed wholesale the idea that H-1B non-immigrant visa holders (from India) were “cheaper,” but also that they were quite “expendable” and “interchangeable.”   Many of the Indians were foundering, poorly trained or not at all, and got shifted from one project to another by the accountants.   (Of course, an absolutely untenable situation for them!)   Really, only Mark and Carl knew what the project was about, and, during my engagement, Carl (a true old-hand) left.   I felt that Mark was soon to follow, although he did not do so before my engagement ended.

    I happen to think that, if a programming team has conflict, it is best addressed as a symptom.   It is an indication of the fact that the team feels that they are in a pressure-cooker, and the surface boiling is probably a warning of much bigger organizational problems than that.   Sometimes, managers are promoted from the programming ranks without being given programming training, but I don’t see that nearly as much as I used to.   (Today, there are usually two parallel tracks – technical, and project-management – and I think that this is an improvement.)   I also don’t generally think that managers are actually the autocratic blow-hards that their teams might say they are (behind their backs).

    I usually recommend that organizations should expose their technical implementation, testing, and other related teams to project management perspectives and issues, although w-i-t-h-o-u-t swallowing the kool-aid of “self-directed teams.”   Technicians need to see their work as the business does.   But the business(!) also needs to better understand how computer software actually works.

    I read a little e-book called Managing the Mechanism ... I have never seen it on a shelf ... that had a lot of influence on my thinking.   The premise behind this book is that software is a self-directing, autonomous software automaton.

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