“While profit may be the ultimate measure of any corporation, the goals and objectives the team unites to achieve, ultimately drives the success of the organization— which drives profit.”

Patrick Lencioni

Great teamwork is the ultimate competitive advantage.

Today’s Big Idea—Leaders must create a culture of productive and healthy conflict. Without it, there is no real trust. And without trust, there is no strength in the team.

So far in this series on Killer Teams, we’ve talked about science-based hiring techniques, proper training, five things every superstar employee needs from their company, what healthy organizations really look like, and the vital importance of mentorship.

All of those things are necessary—but not sufficient—in building a killer team. Great leaders must also be skilled in managing team dynamics. You must know how to get the best out of people in a group, and how to manage conflict within the team.

I’ll admit, as a new leader, I made a lot of mistakes. When I got my first management position, I really wanted people to get along. I made the critical mistake of trying to prevent disagreements. I thought what I had was teamwork—but it wasn’t.

As it turns out, leadership wisdom would say that false harmony is one of the most toxic things for a team because real issues don’t make it out in the open where they can be successfully addressed. When people cannot share their real feelings, seeds of resentment grow.

Humans are emotional. Therefore, it should be no surprise that work is emotional. 

And if the leader appears obviously uncomfortable with disagreements, the team members won’t feel safe enough to say what they really mean, and trust will never be established.

Leadership expert Patrick Lencioni became wildly popular for taking complex organizational concepts and putting them into interesting fictional stories.

Lencioni has an uncanny ability to take big issues and strip them down into simple, actionable steps.

I highly recommend his popular book The 5 Dysfunctions of a Team, which illustrates just how common, and just how problematic, false harmony can be.

As a leader, learning how to facilitate—even incite—healthy conflict, is the starting point for building a strong team.

Because if people don’t trust each other, teamwork is virtually impossible.

What does real trust look like?

Real trust means that team members can be vulnerable—and have full confidence that their co-workers will not use their respective shortcomings or weaknesses against them.

Does that describe the team you lead, or the team you are currently on?

Our culture doesn’t exactly encourage us to be open about our weaknesses. Let alone in leadership.

In team settings, when people can’t be honest about who they are or what they believe—they keep their guard up. The natural consequence of this is that people end up pursuing their own agendas.

When people don’t have the opportunity to passionately debate or weigh in on a topic, it’s also unlikely they will ever commit to carrying out the higher goals of the team.

What else happens when people don’t debate in a healthy way? They gossip!

When people don’t feel safe enough to say what they really mean, they usually resort to venting to people other than the person they have the issue with. Dave Ramsey is so passionate about this that he actually fires people for gossip after one warning.

That is how seriously he wants to eradicate gossip from his organization.

So what does a healthy team look like?

  • People admit weaknesses without fear
  • They ask for help
  • They easily accept questions or feedback from other members
  • They give the benefit of the doubt about intentions
  • They take risks in offering feedback
  • They tap each other’s unique skills
  • They look forward to spending time together (and even meetings!)
  • They offer and accept apologies without hesitation.
  • They are focused on work because they aren’t wasting energy gossiping

Turn information into action

  1. Make sure people know each other as humans first. Without personal information, we tend to depersonalize people. We can easily drift toward seeing them simply as widgets we need something from. Patrick Lencioni argues that a surpisingly small amount of personal information can humanize someone. Find avenues for team members to get to know each other as people, not just co-workers.
  2. Set the tone as the leader, go first in vulnerability. The most basic principle of leadership is that people do what people see. If you want your team (or your kids!) to be open and honest, the best way to do that is to set a great example. How much do you apologize, admit your faults, or encourage differing points of view?
  3. Foster a culture of healthy debate and productive conflict. As I said earlier, for years I did this badly. I would do everything possible to keep the peace and squash the issue quickly. I didn’t realize I was actually preventing real trust from developing by discouraging a healthy debate. Lencioni reccomends a technique called conflict mining, where you actually look for potential conflicting points of view and highlight them! If you have trouble with this, just experiment and realize it will be messy at times. Remind yourself that false harmony is what will really kill your team.
  4. Once all opinions are shared, ask for comittment. Great team members don’t need to get their way every time, but nearly everyone needs to know that their ideas have been heard. Take the time necessary to get all the opinions (and emotions!) out into the open, but once you have done so, ask for a comittment to move forward. Be decisive. If your team can’t come to an agreement, the leader must ultimately decide.
  5. Hold people accountable to the team goal. When teams can get all their opinions on the table and ultimately commit to a united goal, they are more likely to hold each other accountable. This takes pressure off the team leader as the primary source of accountabilty.
  6. Reward results. To quote Navy Seal Jocko Willink, “You get what you tolerate, not what you preach.” When you make it to this step, make sure you reinforce a results-oriented culture. Rockstar team members want to work on high-performing teams that achieve great things. And no amount of team trust will make up for a lack of focus on results.

“The ultimate sign of a dysfunctional team is the tendency for members to care about anything other than the collective goals of the team.”

-Patrick Lencioni

Have a great weekend!

Suggested Resources

  1. Patrick Lencioni—The 5 Dysfunctions of a Team
  2. Dave Ramsey—Entreleadership
  3. Marshall Goldsmith—What Got You Here Won’t Get You There. (The 21 most common habits that hold leaders back from further success)

Parker Houston

Dr. Parker Houston is a board-certified Organizational Psychologist and Leadership Performance Coach. His personal mission is to improve the way people live and work by helping them apply science-based strategies for personal, family, and workplace leadership—in that order. *Opinions expressed are the author's own.
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