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December 16, 2010

Stop Avoiding Conflict

One of my favorite business books of all time is Patrick Lencioni’s “Five Dysfunctions of a Team”.  Like all books by Lencioni, it begins with a short fable in a corporate setting of a management team that is operating totally dysfunctionally.  Then, he provides a framework that analyzes the situation and draws out the general lessons as to why teams operate poorly together, and how to systematically combat it.  The pyramid below summarizes his advice.


Each of the layers of the pyramid resonate with me (which is probably why I have this pyramid printed and hung up in my office), but the one that I always come back to and reread is “Fear of Conflict”.  Again and again, I see management teams and boards of directors shy away from conflict.

It is quite natural for humans to avoid conflict.  In fact, our deeply programmed “fight or flight” instincts are designed to protect ourselves and run away when we sense danger.  Interpersonal conflict is a danger we all prefer to avoid as it makes us uncomfortable.  Your stomach gets a little queasy, your heart beats a little faster, and you think, “How do I get out of this situation?”.  So, you tell a joke.  You change the topic.  And you feel a sense of relief.

When I see this happening in management teams and in board rooms, it makes me uncomfortable because I know where it leads.  It leads to mistrust, simmering issues, politics and dysfunctional behavior.  Here are a few techniques I've found help address this issue, particularly in start-ups.

  1. Building Trust.  The foundation for handling conflict productively begins with building trust amongst the management team.  It's easy to say, but particularly hard to do in a start-up when people have been slammed together quickly and are so crazy busy, that it's hard to stop and take the time to understand each other more deeply.  One technique I have found very helpful here is to conduct a facilitated, day-long offsite where each management team member takes the Myers-Briggs test to help surface how each party thinks,  processes information and makes decisions.  I did this with my management team at Upromise and again when we were starting of at Flybridge and in each case found it helped us understand each other at a far deeper level.
  2. Annual Reviews.  It's easy to be running so hard and so fast that CEOs and boards forget to conduct systematic reviews where a broad range of feedback is collected and tough development issues are addressed head on.  I try to do this at each of my boards and at Flybridge, the general partners conduct 360 degree reviews of each other.  Done correctly, these can be emotionally draining, difficult but very productive exercises where a safe forum for brutal honesty and constructive dialog can be developed.
  3. Systematic Post Mortems.  In my early product management days, I learned the value of the post-mortem - the process of gathering all the relevant team members into the room to talk about what happened after a product ships and why errors or schedule issues occurred.  Extending the post-mortem process into all business activities can be very valuable.  It allows a clinical, unemotional examination of what has happened, how everyone operated under pressure, and what process improvements can be made for next time.  Whether it is done post product release, when an executive team member departs because things didn't  work out, after a board meeting in an executive session, or after an investment goes bad, an analytical examination of what just happened is a useful exercise that forces all parties to address difficult issues.
  4. Go Direct.  At Flybridge, we have developed a mantra for addressing issues amongst the partnership:  "Go Direct".  When one of us has a concern about how another partner is handling a portfolio company situation or evaluating a deal opportunity, we don't allow indirect conversations.  If two partners find themselves talking about a third partner, we stop the conversation and bring in the third partner so that the issue can be addressed directly, out in the open  rather than it festering behind closed doors.  I learned this lesson as an executive team member at a start-up that was not good at going direct.  The VP of sales would come into my office and complain that he wasn't getting good support from the VP of marketing.  Ten minutes later, the VP of marketing would storm in and complain that the salesforce wasn't properly executing on our strategy.  The entire executive team avoided going direct because it was uncomfortable, so we had false harmony in our Monday staff meetings and deep divisions the rest of the week.

Conflict can be stressful, draining and uncomfortable.  Yet, it is incredibly natural, healthy part of life, particularly in a start-up.  And creating a culture that can handle conflict effectively clearly has a positive impact on performance, as recent research has shown (see i4cp study: "Leaders With Low Emotional Intelligence May Be Depressing Bottom Line").

If you want to avoid your start-up feeling like a Soap Opera, try out some of these techniques, and let me know if there are others you've employed as well.


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Thanks for the writeup... this is such a great and important post. I think the other side of the same coin is that people need to be able to take criticism respectably and professionally so that others are willing to give it.

I've had very mixed results with giving feedback. I've had some experiences where people take it with flying colors, and others where, as you say, people change the subject or make a joke to divert attention. I've also seen aggressive and hot-tempered defense mechanisms that lead to denials and arguments. When that happens it becomes much more difficult to give them feedback next time around because you know it won't be taken well.

I'm sure we all have reactionary moments we aren't proud of, but I think it's important to try to be aware of how you respond in these situations so that people won't censor themselves when talking to you.

I couldn't agree more. One of my things is "nothing goes left unsaid." Open communication has really helped me grow, get things done and remain happy at the roller coaster that is a start-up.


Five Dysfunctions of a Team is my favorite book for turning a group of passionate, smart, hard working strangers into a high performing team that not only delivers results, but has a hell of a lot of fun doing so.

I have lead "group read and discussion" excercises on several occasions over the last 10 years or so when this book first came out.

Great book - and one that every management team can learn from (even the most functional teams). It also teaches lessons that are worth re-visiting on a regular basis.

Your post has prompted me to pull this book out once again ....


Excellent post! +1 for freerobby and Janet's comments.

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Great observation.  Giving and receiving
feedback is a skill, for sure.  This is a nice post on a few tips &
techniques: http://bit.ly/fq4tBU.

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Agreed.  One of the phrases we use around
here is:  no “undiscussables”.

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Thanks, Pete.  It is one of the very few
business books I pull out frequently!

So my life journey in the pursuit of dreams can be pieced together every episode highlights after colorful ! ! !

My experience is building trust and going direct become inter-related. Recently a colleague came to me complaining it was hard to engage with another executive. My advice was engage more and do it face-to-face, as opposed to through e-mail, phoen, and/or IM. Face-to-face helps build trust such that when there are disagreements the trust provides a backbone to keep politics to a minimum.

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Agreed. Steven Covey’s book, The Speed of
Trust, is excellent in this area.

Agreed with Brian - engage more... and whether there is open conflict OR NOT...

From my experience with the extremes with higher level management:
1. Manager who never said a thing
2. Executive who said everything out loud

Both of those leaders were unskilled in communicating their needs clearly.
I personally made the mistake of just trying to read-their minds only to fail miserably at meeting their expectations.

It's only been recently that I have learned to overcome any perceived thoughts of looking stupid and say flat out "is this what you want? or Do you understand the repercussions of that decision at the production level?"

Sometimes resolution comes when you bring attention to the conflict via voice, versus emailing or other avoidance communcation.

Great post. Very helpful and relevant for us in this phase..

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Thanks, Raimo.  I’d be surprised if you
didn’t find “false harmony” and “conflict avoidance” in almost every company at
every phase – not just start-ups!

Excellent post and particularly relevant when technical teams interface with non-technical (management) ones. On both sides, people learn dysfunctions of how to deal with conflict and bring them unproductively to work (silent treatment, chastizing, bullying, yelling, blowing up, etc) so it's no wonder we tip toe around to avoid it.

Yet conflict can be the best remedy to avoiding rework if conflict resolution strategies are built into the mix. Your suggestions are spot on - trust is at the core.

Thank you for posting.

Thanks for sharing such a wonderful article with us.

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