Why can a lack of conflict be bad? 🤨 Learn how to overcome artificial harmony in teams and embrace healthy conflict for more effective teamwork
Harmony is often viewed as an ideal state for teams to achieve – everyone getting along, collaborating seamlessly, and avoiding conflict. However, this desire for harmony can lead to “artificial harmony”, where teams prioritize the appearance of cohesion over addressing underlying issues. In his book, “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team”, Patrick Lencioni describes artificial harmony as a dysfunction that prevents teams from having the hard but necessary conversations required for success.
What is Artificial Harmony?
Artificial harmony refers to the avoidance of healthy disagreement and conflict within teams in order to maintain the illusion of cohesion. Team members may refrain from voicing dissent, critiques, or opposing views to avoid disrupting group harmony. This leads to suppressed frustrations, lack of debate, and poor decision making.
According to Lencioni, signs of artificial harmony include:
- Team meetings with little spirited discussion or passion
- Individuals hesitant to voice objections or dissent
- Back-channel conversations where people express their true reservations
- A lack of buy-in and hidden reluctance to commit to decisions
Artificial harmony stems from a team’s lack of trust and fear of interpersonal conflict. Without sufficient trust amongst members, sharing dissenting opinions can feel risky. This causes teams to default to harmony at the expense of problems going unaddressed.
The Cost of Artificial Harmony
While artificial harmony appears to be a peaceful state, it can seriously hinder team effectiveness. Hidden frustrations lead to cynicism, politics, and poor alignment. Research shows that constructive conflict, properly managed, can lead to greater team cohesion, performance, and decision quality.
However, most teams need help establishing norms for openness. Lencioni notes that artificial harmony – not conflict itself – is the root dysfunction. Teams must build trust to feel safe dissenting and have willingness to engage in passionate debate.
Building Trust to Overcome Artificial Harmony
Trust is the foundation for teams to have healthy conflict. Leaders should focus first on building interpersonal trust before trying to “mine” for conflict. Useful ways to build trust include:
- Personal storytelling – Sharing experiences, backgrounds, interests
- Personality assessments – Discussing working styles and preferences
- Praise and recognition – Acknowledging team members’ contributions
- Collaborative projects – Working together toward shared goals
With greater trust, team members can express reservations, debate vigorously, and commit to decisions without remaining unspoken tensions.
Introducing Healthy Conflict
Once teams build sufficient trust, leaders can introduce norms for healthy debate and constructive disagreement. Useful approaches include:
- Establishing rules of engagement – Set expectations for respectful conflict resolution.
- Role assignment – Appoint someone to play “devil’s advocate” and raise alternative views.
- Conflict profiling – Have team members share their preferences and comfort levels with conflict.
- Permission giving – Explicitly remind people that disagreement is valuable and encouraged.
By normalizing healthy debate, teams can avoid the pitfalls of artificial harmony and make better decisions. Leaders should regularly reinforce that conflict stems from commitment to excellent outcomes.
Signs of Healthy Conflict
When teams successfully shift to healthy conflict, meetings become more engaging, team members openly voice concerns, and decisions lead to greater buy-in. Here are signs a team has achieved healthy debate:
- Spirited discussion and passionate exchange of ideas
- Individuals feel comfortable voicing dissent without fear
- Back-channel conversations disappear, replaced by in-meeting debates
- Team members commit to decisions despite initial disagreement
- Interpersonal tension gives way to mutual understanding
The Leader’s Role
Leaders play a crucial role in establishing norms for healthy disagreement and modeling constructive behaviors. They must first build an environment of safety and trust amongst members. Leaders can then model healthy debate by encouraging alternative views, thanking disagreeing members for their perspective, and reiterating that conflict aids the team’s goals.
By avoiding artificial harmony and embracing healthy conflict, teams can achieve greater trust, cohesion, and performance. With persistence and care, leaders can transform conflict-avoidant groups into vibrant teams that engage differing views to reach optimal solutions. The path requires patience, support, and reinforcement, but the payoff of unleashing a team’s potential makes overcoming artificial harmony well worth the effort.
Embracing Healthy Conflict
While overcoming artificial harmony is critical for team effectiveness, it is just as important to embrace healthy conflict within teams. Leaders must nurture an environment where team members feel comfortable engaging in constructive disagreement and debate.
Promoting Openness and Honesty
To promote healthy conflict, leaders should encourage openness and honesty among team members. An environment of artificial harmony often stems from individuals not sharing their true thoughts and feelings about issues.
Leaders can promote openness through:
- Icebreaker activities in meetings to foster comfort.
- Regular one-on-one conversations to understand concerns.
- Anonymous feedback mechanisms to surface unspoken opinions.
Honest communication, without fear of judgment, is crucial for teams to engage in productive conflict.
Valuing Diverse Perspectives
Diverse perspectives are essential for healthy debate. Leaders must proactively encourage individuals with different opinions, backgrounds, and thinking styles to speak up.
Strategies to value diversity include:
- Seeking input from introverts and extroverts alike.
- Providing multiple channels for team members to voice thoughts.
- Explicitly thanking disagreeing members for their perspective.
Leaders should remind everyone that dissent does not mean disloyalty – it demonstrates commitment to finding the best solution.
Establishing Clear Rules of Engagement
For productive disagreement, the team needs clear expectations about how to debate issues constructively. Leaders should facilitate norms including:
- Focusing debate on ideas, not people.
- Allowing time for reflection before responding.
- Providing dissenters the opportunity to elaborate on reservations.
- Ensuring conflicts resolve with mutual understanding.
With established rules of engagement, team members can trust the process and avoid conflict escalating to animosity.
Modeling Receptiveness to Feedback
Leaders set the tone for healthy disagreement through their own example. By demonstrating receptiveness to alternate views and critiques, leaders give team members permission to voice dissent.
Leaders can model openness by:
- Actively eliciting critical feedback from the team.
- Thanking team members who express concerns.
- Admitting when they have changed perspectives based on team input.
- Reinforcing that dissent is healthy and leads to better outcomes.
Cultivating Psychological Safety
Ultimately, team members must feel psychologically safe to engage in passionate debate. Leaders should nurture an environment where individuals are comfortable sharing ideas without fear of embarrassment or retribution.
Strategies for psychological safety include:
- Establishing team norms that encourage expression.
- Privately praising individuals who voice minority opinions.
- Actively demonstrating that dissent will not affect appraisals or advancement.
- Promoting mutual empathy and understanding during debates.
By cultivating psychological safety, leaders enable genuine debate, creative friction, and better decisions. This advances the team’s shared goals while avoiding the pitfalls of artificial harmony.
- Artificial harmony refers to teams avoiding healthy disagreement and conflict to maintain the appearance of cohesion. This leads to unaddressed issues and suppressed frustrations.
- Trust is the foundation for teams to engage in passionate, constructive debate. Leaders should focus first on building interpersonal trust.
- Techniques like personal storytelling, praise, and collaborative projects can help team members develop mutual trust and safety.
- Leaders should introduce norms for healthy debate once sufficient trust emerges. Role assignment, conflict profiling, and permission giving can facilitate constructive disagreement.
- Signs a team has achieved healthy conflict include spirited discussion, voicing dissent, disappearing back-channel conversations, and increased buy-in.
- Leaders play a pivotal role in modeling constructive debate, reinforcing its value, and ushering teams from artificial harmony to genuine cohesion.