Jerry Roberts

Jerry Roberts

More dysfunction is coming today, as we dig into why we often have so much trouble with workplace teams.

It’s been almost 20 years since consultant Patrick Lencioni published what has become a widely referenced book on team building, "The Five Dysfunctions of a Team." It is still considered a great resource on the subject.

In part one, we discussed Lencioni’s first dysfunction, the absence of trust.

Dysfunction No. 2 – fear of conflict

Here’s a statement Lencioni makes, and you have to consider it carefully: “By building trust, teams make conflict possible.” The first time I saw this in a group setting, someone said, “Wait a minute, I don’t want conflict. If I build trust, that makes conflict possible?”

Well, it does, and in this context, conflict is a good thing. Lencioni would tell you that until you can generate honest conflict, it’s a bad thing for the organization.

Conflict is a good thing?

I know that seems wrong, but the concept is solid. When you can disagree on things, and do so constructively, you can make real progress.

So many workplaces have what Lencioni calls “artificial harmony.” Everybody smiles at everybody else, and never is heard a discouraging word, and we all supposedly get along well.

Lencioni believes that it is these places where you’ll discover unbearable tension, boring meetings, and back-channel office politics, and the seeds of discontent are preparing to deliver a harvest of unhappiness.

Should I protect people from conflict?

Again, it seems the right thing to do, but it’s a mistake. It’s admirable that you want to shield your workers from tough conversations, from people getting up in their face, from people taking their ideas apart in a meeting, from being exposed publicly that they may not be ready for a big promotion. Admirable? OK. Helpful? I doubt it.

Because rescuing people on your team before any discomfort befalls them prevents these team members from developing coping skills for dealing with the conflict that most assuredly will face them in their career.

Will they be ready?

Phil Jackson, the basketball coach with the most NBA championships to his credit, 11, had a strategy when he coached the Los Angeles Lakers (1999-2011), that folds in well with this concept.

When the Lakers would see the opponent stage a big rally to wipe out their lead or put them behind, Jackson would rarely call a timeout to slow down the other team’s momentum.

Instead, he let the players on the floor figure it out. Yes, he could have told them what was happening and how to deal with it, but there was much more value for them if they used their talents and their brains to come up with the answer and solve the problem.

Coaching overcame conflict

Jackson had to deal with massive egos on some of those teams, especially the years in which the Lakers won three consecutive championships.

Two players, the late Kobe Bryant, and Shaquille O’Neal, had very different styles. Bryant’s off-the-scale intensity didn’t always mesh well with O’Neal’s laid-back approach, and the two were frequently at each other’s throats. Yet, Jackson used the conflict to produce results.

Don’t let conflict derail you

Lencioni’s idea – something I’ve stressed in my training – is that while you want to expose workers to conflict, you don’t allow situations to jump the tracks when personalities clash and things turn personal.

Jackson understood that principle. He didn’t want to stifle the personal expression of either of his two major stars, but he couldn’t allow their differences to sink the team’s fortunes.

Use conflict to teach

After you’ve had workers experience conflict together, use it as a teaching moment in your group. This reinforces the idea that conflict can push us to greater achievement, if we handle it correctly.

Therefore, it shouldn’t be feared. That can bring powerful results. These teaching moments will help others to prepare when conflict comes their way.

Let people talk about how they felt as a situation was mounting. Did the words they used calm things down or make them worse?

From Patrick Lencioni’s "The Five Dysfunctions of a Team." We’ll pick up on this again next week, as we discuss commitment. Have a blessed Thanksgiving Day, with food, family, friends and thoughts of gratitude.

Need help to control the negatives of conflict, then use it as a constructive tool? Jerry Roberts can be reached at, or email


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