Resolving team tension

A summary of some recent training that I attended on resolving team tension. Trust and psychological safety are central to my leadership style, so I was pleased to learn about Lencioni’s 5 dysfunctions of a team and how trust is at the foundation of effective teams.

Healthy tension and unhealthy tension

Healthy team tension manifests as:

  • Constructive conflict encouraged
  • Supportive challenge
  • People sharing positive feedback with each other, raising each other up
  • People offering help to each other.
  • Innovation, morale and productivity.

Unhealthy team tension manifests as:

  • Infighting and disputes
  • Lack of conflict resolution
  • Unfair work distribution
  • Credit not being given
  • Poor performance not being managed
  • People ignoring the elephant in the room
  • People being confused or lacking direction
  • People unable to ask for help or be vulnerable
  • Low morale and productivity.

Types of threat that people can feel

Tension often manifests because people’s threat response has been triggered. People can feel threats to:

  • Status (importance relative to others)
  • Certainty (being able to predict the future. Goals, roles, structure and process help here)
  • Autonomy (our sense of control over events. Clear objectives and boundaries help here)
  • Relatedness (our sense of safety with other people)
  • Fairness (fair exchanges between people)
  • Understanding (particularly important when things change)

Trust is foundational – Lencioni’s 5 dysfunctions of a team

Lencioni outlined 5 dysfunction of a team. They lead into each other in succession:

  1. Absence of trust (not trusting colleagues’ intentions or competence. Not able to show weakness, admit mistakes or ask for help)
  2. Fear of conflict (no healthy or open debate)
  3. Lack of commitment
  4. Avoidance of accountability
  5. Inattention to results

So the absence of trust is the root cause of all the other problems:

  • A lack of trust leads to
  • Inability to demonstrate vulnerability to each other, which leads to
  • Fear of conflict, false consensus and back-channel conflict, which leads to
  • Artificial harmony, which leads to
  • Lack of commitment to decisions and plans, which leads to
  • Ambiguity, which leads to
  • Avoidance of accountability, which leads to
  • Low standards, which leads to
  • Inattention to results. Individual goals put above team goals.

When you do have trust in a team, you get lots of good behaviours:

  • Sharing information
  • Accepting feedback
  • Accountability – taking responsibility for one’s performance
  • Open debates
  • Commitment
  • Focus on achieving results

How to deal with dysfunction 1. ‘Absence of trust’

The factors that create trust:

Credibility = your expertise and how you appear to others

Reliability = dependability and consistency. Acting in accordance with expectations. Keeping your word.

Intimacy = ability to connect with the other person. Revealing your true self, likes/dislikes, strengths/weaknesses. Being someone that someone can confide in.

Self-interest = how much you put yourself and your needs first

An exercise that can help teams build trust in the ‘forming’ stage – the Trust Shield:

A one-page document with the following:

  • Me at my best
  • Me at my worst
  • What I hope to bring to the team
  • What I need from the team

Leaders should share theirs first, to model the vulnerability of sharing this information.

In retrospect, I’d have liked to see more on trust here, and less on the other dysfunctions. The other dysfunctions ultimately stem from a lack of trust, so it seems to me to be by far the most important thing to spend time on. This article on why agile doesn’t work without psychological safety has 5 ideas for bolstering psychological safety.

How to deal with fear of conflict (dysfunction 2)

We want constructive conflict, with dialogue, rather than arguments or debates.

It brings innovation and creativity, better information gathering and sharing, understanding of different perspectives, improved communication and reduced stress.

Techniques to get constructive conflict:

  1. Separate interpersonal issues from the problem at hand
  2. Turn zero sum negotiation into exploration and collaboration (or compromise, if that doesn’t work)
    1. Focus on interests rather than positions. Ask open questions to understand why someone is behaving a certain way and taking a certain position. Summarise what you hear them say and ask clarifying questions. 
    2. Get away from the idea that the situation is antagonistic and zero sum. Invent shared interests and opportunities for mutual gain. Collaborate to create new choices for action.
    3. Make sure that both perspectives get outlined and engaged with. If either party’s views are not engaged with fully, the outcome will be suboptimal.
    4. Sometimes compromise is needed – one side experiences a mini win, and the other a mini loss.
  3. Give quieter people space to talk. Sometimes you’ll need to call on people to contribute, and hold space for them to do so safely.

How to deal with lack of commitment (dysfunction 3)

Clear communication on goals, mission and objectives. Revisit these constantly and relate all activity – and individual objectives – back to these.

Make sure that any practical barriers to doing the work are addressed.

Connect work to people’s motivations. The main motivators are:

  • Responsibility
  • Recognition (inc salary)
  • Sense of achievement
  • Interest
  • Opportunities for advancement
  • Opportunities for personal growth

How to deal with avoidance of accountability (dysfunction 5)

Increase ownership:

  • Define the outcome and trust people to work out how to get there
  • Let team members formulate their own goals
  • Use a RACI model to give clarity on roles

Dialogues need four roles to be successful

We need to constructively engage with tension, rather than ignore it. It’s always a sign of something that needs to be worked through. You can set up healthy dialogues by making sure that you have the following 4 roles being taken by participants. (These are fluid, and people can move between them over time. Nothing to do with job title, hierarchy or authority.)

1. Mover – initiates a topic or point of view, and brings focus to it

2. Follower – adds support to what is being said.

3. Opposers – challenges what has been said.

4. Bystander – listens and watches, expanding what is thought about. Doesn’t necessarily take a firm stand in support or opposition of an idea.

You want to have all 4 of these actions present, in balance.

RoleIntendsCan come across as
MoverDirection, discipline, commitment, perfection, clarityOmnipotent, impatient, indecisive, scattered, dictatorial
FollowerCompletion, compassion, loyalty, service, continuityPlacating, indecisive, pliant, over-accommodating
OpposerCourage, integrity, correction, protection, survivalCritical, complaining, blaming, attacking, contrary
BystanderPerspective, patience, preservation, moderation, self-reflectionDisengaged, judgemental, deserting, withdrawn, silent

What unhealthy conversation looks like

This happens when roles are missing or are out of balance.

Some common failure states:

  • Movers and Opposers creating and destroying ideas endlessly.
  • Someone being stuck in a single position. (E.g. someone being stuck in the Mover position, introducing more and more ideas until finally someone takes on the follower role and supports something.) This can cause the conversation to get stuck.
  • One or more roles being silenced by group dynamics. This can happen to the bystander role, especially when a group is feeling tired.

How to implement the four roles in dialogue

Introduce everyone to the 4-role model. Having a shared understanding makes it easier to notice when things aren’t going well.

Some interventions: 

  • invite a stuck mover to slow down and make space for others. 
  • Point out a Move/Oppose deadlock and allow the participants to self-remedy
  • Invite a Bystander into the conversation to share their perspective
  • Split the group into sub-groups, then bring their ideas back to the main group.

To break people out of established roles, use a liberating structure, or give people one of 6 thinking hats to wear. This encourages people to think in a way that doesn’t come naturally to them.