Conflict, lack of clarity, and decision making: The 3 biggest derailers of work teams

Conflict—and the inability to deal with it effectively—is one of the three biggest derailers of work teams, says Lael Good, director of consulting services for The Ken Blanchard Companies and coauthor of the company’s new Team Leadership program.

“In the absence of training, people won’t naturally seek out conflict solutions where others can be seen and heard. Instead, they will resort to their own strategies for dealing with conflict,” says Good. “One of the things we teach in the Team Leadership program is how to understand if you have a fight or flight approach to conflict—because neither of those options is necessarily the best way for a team to work together. Our goal is to create an environment within a team where people share their opinions and discuss conflict openly—because that’s the only way it is going to become a high performance team.”

Good explains that team members may have different personality styles that need to be considered. For example, some may be battlers—very open about announcing their opinions to the team, and some may be avoiders—careful about bringing up their concerns or even trying to avoid talking about them.

“Each person’s approach to conflict has a lot to do with their personality preferences. Diversity within teams is important because it creates more opportunities to find solutions. It also opens the possibility of discrepancies between people who see things differently and act differently. But if conflicting viewpoints are not brought out in the open and discussed, the team could fall apart.”

The team leader plays an important role, says Good. “Some leaders run for the woods when conflict arises. Others say ‘Knock it off and get back to work.’ It’s difficult for a team to progress with either of those approaches. Leaders need to embrace conflict in a way that opens a door rather than closes it.”

Lack of Clarity is number 2
A lack of clarity is the second big derailer of a high performance team, says Good. “Lack of clarity causes problems at many levels. Clarity and alignment must exist between goals of the team and those of the organization. There must also be clarity among team members about what they are doing and how they are doing it. And finally, it is necessary to have clarity around decisions that are made and the impact the team will have on other teams and individuals in the organization.

“Unless all of these areas of clarity are sorted out, we often find that teams step into other territories without meaning to. Questions may come from others regarding the purpose of the team and how the team’s actions link to what the organization is trying to achieve.”

Decision Making is number 3
The third big derailer of successful teams is decision making. “Most teams strive to make key decisions by consensus. But in the midst of the challenges and pressures brought on by conflict, the leader or subject matter expert makes the decision or it is reached through a majority vote. If the decision making process isn’t defined at the outset, these and other difficulties can result in no decisions being reached.”

To fix these three major derailers of teams, Good recommends using a common language and process to launch and accelerate the growth of a team through the four stages of development: Orientation, when a team is just starting out; Dissatisfaction, when conflict inevitably arises; Integration, as the team begins to learn how to work with each other; and Production, when the fine-tuned team is achieving its purpose and goals.

“At the Orientation stage, a team needs clarity and alignment. Team members are excited but they also have a lot of questions. The team leader’s role is to not only ensure the team is aligned on its purpose, goals, and roles, but also provide clear objectives and norms around communication, accountability, and decision making.

“At the Dissatisfaction stage, the team begins to experience conflict as team members present different ideas about how the team should work together. Many teams never progress to a level of high performance because they can’t manage or communicate through that conflict.

“At the Integration stage, things are beginning to improve, but the team needs to keep talking. We teach team members to voice their concerns and share their thoughts and observations with the team. This is where having clear agreements about objectives and norms at the front end helps. Now people can ask “How are we doing with our norms?” This check-in process gives the team a way to openly discuss what’s happening and what might be getting in the way of the team’s ability to deliver results on time.

“At the Production stage, the challenge is how to sustain high performance. This is about keeping the team nourished and growing. Don’t take the team for granted. The team leader needs to ask ‘Are we demonstrating our team’s contribution to overall organizational goals? Have we recognized and appreciated each team member’s efforts? What’s next for our team?’”

Good offers some encouragement. “If leaders are meeting the team’s needs at each stage, the team is going to accelerate through all four stages of development. The more broadly this is understood by both team members and team leaders in the organization, the more likely the organization will be a high performance organization. And if that means going a little bit slower in the beginning, rest assured it will pay off with additional speed and better results in the long run.

“The speed of change in organizations today is such that no one person can go it alone. We simply can’t accomplish everything that needs to be done, or gain enough skill or expertise to do it, by ourselves. Well-structured teams with a common language and process allow organizations to leverage diverse skill sets and approaches when they bring together a group of people to address common goals.”

Source:, September 2019

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