Small Business Trends

Strong Teams: Why Conflict is Essential for True Commitment

Published by in Small Business Trends

I’ll admit it: I don’t follow through with every commitment I make. I wish I did, but—like all of us—I don’t.

strong team

After I break a commitment, I typically take a few minutes to reflect as to why I didn’t follow through and find the usual excuses – over-committing, failing to prioritize my time effectively, becoming distracted by urgent but relatively unimportant tasks, etc. I imagine my list is similar to yours.

As part of my reflection, I also look at the commitments I met. Why? What was different with these? Maybe it was a hard deadline, the fact that someone else was counting on it, or I felt a deeper sense of obligation. Whatever the reason seems to be on the surface, when I look deeper, the commitments I meet just about always involve some dialog and conflict.

I’d argue (and I’m about to) that it’s the conflict related to them that makes them more likely to be met. In fact, I believe conflict is essential in order to truly commit to something, a concept which I’ll refer to—from here on out—as  ‘true commitment’.

In my last post, I wrote on Patrick Lencioni’s ‘The Five Dysfunctions of a Team,’ widely considered one of the best books on team-building. In the book, Patrick describes the 5 dysfunctions of a team and uses a pyramid to show the levels:

  • Absence of Trust
  • Fear of Conflict
  • Lack of Commitment
  • Avoidance of Accountability
  • Inattention to Results

While I previously wrote about how trust is the foundation of both Lencioni’s pyramid and any team, in this post, I’ll define the next two levels of Patrick Lencioni’s team pyramid (conflict and commitment) and discuss ways to promote them so that you can achieve more.

Fear of Conflict

Lencioni states that a “fear of conflict” is the second dysfunction that prevents teams from reaching their true potential. This “fear” is an unwillingness to engage in productive, unfiltered debate that ultimately leads to discomfort, stress, and growth. Productive conflict is the equivalent of a strenuous workout for the team – it builds strength and resilience, and leads to success.

“Fear of Conflict -Teams that trust each other are not afraid to engage in passionate dialogue around issues and decisions that are key to the organization’s success. They do not hesitate to disagree with, challenge, and question one another, all in the spirit of finding the best answers, discovering the truth, and making great decisions.” – Patrick Lencioni

There are a couple quick things that must be noted about conflict in order for it to be productive and eustress (“good” stress) rather than distress:

  • Vulnerability-based trust is an absolute requirement for productive conflict.
  • Productive conflict is not about “winning an argument” but the “humble pursuit of truth.”
  • It is uncomfortable for everyone, but that shouldn’t prevent it from occurring.

I used to argue at a previous company that meetings were the most important “work” that we (as managers/executives) did. Meetings were where we should have been having productive dialog, debating issues, and engaging in conflict in order to make important decisions. Instead our meetings were BORING! A clear sign, according to Lencioni, that indicates a lack of conflict (He covers meetings in his great book, ‘Death by Meeting’.)

Are your meetings boring? Is the office filled with bobble-head “yes” men? Is status quo the typical decision? If so, you’re missing productive conflict and ultimately true commitment.

Lack of Commitment

The third dysfunction is a lack of commitment. It’s the underlying reason why we don’t follow through – we haven’t really committed to whatever it is.

“Lack of Commitment – Teams that engage in unfiltered conflict are able to achieve genuine buy-in around important decisions, even when various members of the team initially disagree. That’s because they ensure that all opinions and ideas are put on the table and considered, giving confidence to team members that no stone has been left unturned.” – Patrick Lencioni

Have you ever said “yes” to something because you felt guilted into it? Or because no one else in the room said “yes”? Or because if you didn’t you’d get punished? Or worse, because you were harassed or pressured until you did? These are hollow “yeses”. This is not true commitment, and the chances of these commitments being met on-time, on-budget, and with high quality are dramatically reduced compared to the affirmative “yeses” you give.

It’s easy to say, “of course that’s the case. I really didn’t say yes.” But what is going on under the surface with these? Lencioni would argue that it is because there wasn’t conflict, which leads to buy-in and clarity.

Have you ever disagreed with something and still followed through, fully committed? Why?

In my experience, this has occurred when I was able to fully discuss the decision. I can say “yes” and buy-in to something that I disagree with initially when I’m able to offer my thoughts, feel like they have been fully and truly considered, and understand the logic behind the decision. I don’t always like it, but I can commit to doing my best and actually follow through without resentment or feeling a personal loss.

A few things to keep in mind regarding true commitment:

  • True commitment requires productive conflict and vulnerability-based trust.
  • You can commit fully to something even though you didn’t initially agree to it when you get the chance to discuss and debate it.
  • Commitment is not the same as consensus; in fact, it’s “the ability to defy a lack of consensus.”

At the end of the day, someone on a team has to make “the decision” and not everyone will agree with or like it. What fantastic teams do that others don’t, however, is commit despite not agreeing or liking it. They do this because they trust each other and are able to engage in productive conflict.

Promoting Conflict and Commitment

As a leader, it’s your responsibility to promote and reward productive conflict and true commitment. Here are 10 ways to do so:

  1. First off, be aware of your bias and reaction to conflict – how do you model it?
  2. Have team members share their thoughts and feelings regarding conflict with each other. Have them share their conflict profile.
  3. Create explicit team expectations and guidelines for productive conflict.
  4. Lead the way by asking challenging questions and mining for conflict.
  5. Point out to the team when productive conflict is occurring and remind them that, despite being uncomfortable, it’s a good thing.
  6. Call meetings specifically to address an issue where debate and conflict are present – shine the light on them and start the meeting with a bang.
  7. Explicitly clarify and recap all decisions and commitments.
  8. Make sure there is an affirmative “yes” when commitments are made or continue to discuss until there is.
  9. Communicate commitments to all those that will be involved in a timely and complete fashion.
  10. And if all else fails, get someone to help.

The road map to a high functioning team is Lencioni’s pyramid. It starts with trust, requires conflict, and enables the team to have true commitment to the decisions made. In part 3, my next and final post in this series, I’ll cover the last two levels of the pyramid and why  they’re essential for building effective teams.

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About the Author

Ryan Yeoman

Ryan Yeoman

Ryan Yeoman currently resides in the always sunny Cabo San Marketing neighborhood at Capterra working with a great team to help software buyers find the right software. He's inspired by his two sons, the mountains, and Life is Good T-shirts.


Comment by Ginger Wong on

*Sorry, typo…I have NEVER seen an article written…..

Comment by Ginger Wong on

I have seen an article written on the necessity of conflict but have always believed in it, as written in the article, but could never articulate it the way you did. ..probably because the people that I was trying to talk to about this subject were afraid of any kind of conflict. Thank you so much. You just made my day.

Comment by Andrew Wert on

Productive conflict, so true… This is really great advice. Thanks Ryan, keep it coming.

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