Is Lack of Conflict Killing Your Business? 

Why it’s important to build a culture of trust, empowering your associates to engage in constructive conflict.

Rob Ziv Leave a Comment
Is Lack of Conflict Killing Your Business? 


Several years back, a branch manager at a growing multistate commercial AV integrator shared his company’s future vision with me. Success seemed almost inevitable in his eyes. 

A subsequent conversation about 12 months later revealed the entire company had gone bankrupt. A sizable project ran into problems and spiraled into expensive losses that the company could not cover. This is an extreme outcome to risks that businesses face when stretching their capabilities.

The part that surprised me, however, was when he said that he knew the project was bad news before they signed the contract. Yet, he was reluctant to say anything to his higher-ups. 

Stop and think about that for a moment. 

What would prevent someone from raising red flags to avoid a dire situation? We can’t eliminate all problems or every money-losing project, but how many issues could we avoid if someone spoke up when they saw a legitimate concern? What cultural barriers do we need to remove to have an open dialogue?

Establishing Trust, Aiding in Productive Conflict 

If asked, Patrick Lencioni, an organizational health expert, might trace the answers back to a lack of trust and a fear of conflict. In his book, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable, Lencioni presents a framework for identifying obstacles to organizational success. 

He also discusses how to get team members to speak up and add critical insight, while also building to a focus on common objectives. Establishing trust and aiding in productive conflict are the first two building blocks in the process. 

In Lencioni’s model, trust is the understanding that others have good intentions; that trust removes the need for self-protection from criticism because it reduces personal vulnerability concerns. After establishing trust, people are more inclined to risk sharing the unpopular opinions that are necessary to engage in productive conflict.

Related: From Notebook to Strategic Plan

In other words, they will speak up if they see a problem when they no longer fear an adverse response. As a bonus, when employees have a voice, including the ability to disagree constructively, they are also more willing to commit to shared objectives, even if they have a dissenting opinion. 

Examining team members’ willingness to show vulnerabilities can help identify trust’s presence (or absence). For example, as Lencioni asks, are employees willing to request help? Do they accept input from others? Will they admit weakness or mistakes? Do they take risks in offering feedback? Do they focus on issues instead of politics? Are they willing to apologize when appropriate? 

If you answer “yes” to most of these items, you may have the foundation for a trusting culture. 

Engaging in Exercises 

Suppose, however, that employees conceal weakness, avoid asking for help, jump to conclusions, hold grudges, dread meetings or avoid spending time together. In that case, you may have some work in front of you. 

Lencioni suggests spending more time together or engaging in personal-history exercises that include discussing low- to moderate-risk items such as hometown, number of siblings, hobbies, first job, worst job and childhood challenges. 

Effectiveness exercises push the boundaries further. These involve team members self-identifying their most crucial contribution, as well as what they need to change or eliminate.

Start with the leader, as he or she must set the example. Willingly show genuine vulnerability, and do not punish the admission of weakness. Building trust takes time and effort, so do not expect overnight changes from a few exercises. 

So, how do we move from building trust to generating productive conflict? 

First, recognize that productive conflict means a willingness to question and debate issues. It is constructive ideological engagement, not destructive interpersonal friction. 

Benefits include generating ideas, uncovering unseen risks, minimizing politics, opening a dialogue to critical topics and focusing on the best solution in the shortest time. Signs of productive conflict include engaging meetings that extract all team members’ ideas and rapid problem solving. 

Ask Yourself These Questions 

So, ask yourself this: Are group conversations compelling or boring? Are the most essential and challenging items put on the table for resolution? Are people unguarded and passionate in their discussion of issues? If so, then pat yourself on the back. 

If not, then consider acknowledging the value of conflict during meetings. Find the courage and objectivity to work through issues. Ask questions to uncover buried disagreements and give permission to offer counterpoints, while encouraging healthy debate. People need reminders that constructive conflict is beneficial. 

The concept of constructive conflict sometimes evokes questions on when it is applicable. Do we want a collaborative, consensus-building process versus an autocratic leadership style in all cases? After all, why waste time arguing if the boss already has the answer? Plus, how do you move forward after a disagreement? We will address these questions and others in future pieces.

For now, consider building trust and then leveraging productive conflict to get ideas flowing, identify new or shorter paths to success, and help projects run more smoothly. Perhaps, in the process, you may save yourself from a fate similar to that of my acquaintance’s former company.