Over the past few weeks, I had a few conversations with leaders I know about dysfunction on teams. Sadly, this dysfunction is a common occurrence that, in my experience, often arises from a fundamental fear of conflict.
It’s a theme that frequently arises in my coaching work with leaders. Especially fundraising leaders. The fear of conflict is often initiated and promulgated by an insidious saboteur known as the “Pleaser.”
I previously described the Pleaser Saboteur in a post entitled “The One Skill Every Fundraiser Must Cultivate.” The Pleaser is an automatic and habitual mind pattern that frequently afflicts fundraising leaders by indirectly attempting to gain acceptance by helping, pleasing, or flattering others. The impact of the Pleaser on fundraising teams is an avoidance of conflict which creates an environment of artificial harmony. Pat Lencioni in is excellent book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team rightly points out that true harmony on teams can be beneficial, leading to cooperation, collaboration, and synergy. On the other hand, fear of conflict that induces artificial harmony often leads to discord, contention, and ultimate team dysfunction.
I recognize that many folks are deeply uncomfortable about discussing a difference of opinion, or disagreement for fear that they might offend the other person, injure the relationship or otherwise create an unpleasant circumstance. This fear must be faced and overcome to have a productive and well-functioning team Lencioni’s research clearly demonstrates that teams which engage in healthy, productive conflict (that is, conflict focused on ideas rather than personalities) enjoy superior performance over those that do not engage in healthy conflict.
One way for a leader to create an environment where team members feel free to bring crucial, yet potentially sensitive, topics to meetings for discussion is to actually “mine for conflict.” That’s right. It is incumbent for the leader of the team to use his or her intuition to draw out disagreement, and to grant full permission to other teammates to air their differences without fear of reprisal. Of course, it is essential that everyone on the team to commit to saying what is true for them, and to be persons to whom others can express themselves with candor. It also helps when individuals commit to no gossip, that is, to speak their minds in team meetings and not behind closed doors after the meeting is over. Teams where individuals make the commitments of speaking to one another with candor and ending gossip possess higher levels of trust, and have less fear that potential conflict will destroy relationships.
As fundraising leaders begin to tame their Pleaser Saboteur to create and sustain a culture where healthy debate is encouraged, there is another helpful tool that can be used to navigate conflict. This tool is used as part of the Co-Active Leadership Model which was introduced by the Coaches Training Institute. In the Co-Active Leadership Model, conflict is transformed from a process that often has a starting point where individuals quickly seek agreement in order to gain acceptance. This is often achieved through tactics like convincing, manipulation, authority, and so on. In the Co-Active model of conflict management, we typically start by seeking alignment, which leads to understanding, and finally to an agreement. The former mode of conflict frequently results in contention and compliance. The latter process, if allowed to unfold in an environment where individuals seek (as Stephen Covey put it) “first to understand,” often leads to rich dialogue where members of the team align on something more important than the issue in conflict. They then go ahead and have the disagreement and create solutions that everyone can support and accept.
In high-functioning teams, conflict is transformed from a process that is feared to one that is embraced. Especially when it is approached using some of the principles outlined in this post. I suggest you start with baby steps by creating an atmosphere where candor is encouraged, and gossip is eliminated. Once those commitments are established, go ahead and try the Co-Active model for conflict management, and watch your team thrive.
David Langiulli is a certified professional coach who works with non-profit leaders.
He’s also the author of The Essential Leadership Guide For Fundraising Professionals.