How Strong Teams are Forged in the Crucible of Conflict
01 / 17 / 20

How Strong Teams are Forged in the Crucible of Conflict

“What people most want from work is to be able to come in and work with the right team of people—colleagues they trust and admire—and to focus like crazy on doing a great job together.”

This quote by the former chief talent officer at Netflix, Patty McCord, in her book “Powerful: Building a Culture of Freedom and Responsibility,” gets at the heart of what a healthy, high-performing culture looks like.

It's built on a strong foundation of trust, where people are willing to work hard together because they trust each other—and their leaders.

But, if we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll admit that achieving—and maintaining—this high level of team cohesiveness is much easier said than done.

That’s because it requires intentionality and vigilance. Otherwise, if we let our guard down, even for a moment, the vice of Territorialism could infect our companies, breaking down trust and hurting business performance.

When Territorialism takes hold of a culture, you see a lot of sniping, complaining, and passive-aggressive tactics being deployed to make the other party look bad. And as teams and departments work against each other, they waste valuable energy (and time). They cause the organization to go in circles instead of traveling on the fastest course toward a shared vision—toward a level of success that can only be achieved as a cohesive team.

So, how can you counteract the spread of Territorialism in your culture to build a Stronger Team that consistently performs at the highest level?

The answer is found in the practice of Peacemaking—one of the “Great 8” leadership virtues from my book “The Great 8: A New Paradigm for Leadership.”

(For an overview, see “The Great 8” Process.)

Business Outcome of Peacemaking: Stronger Team

How does the virtue of Peacemaking contribute to building a Stronger Team?

In answering this question, let me provide some context.

We introduced this three-part series on Peacemaking with the article, “How Great Leaders Manage Conflict to Boost Innovation." We talked about how Territorialism is a vice that's built on a scarcity mentality—a fear of loss. It causes people to get defensive and protect their turf at all costs. It sees business as a zero-sum game: for me to win, I must make sure you lose.

But Peacemaking is based on an abundance mindset. If we resolve our differences and work together, we both win—and on a much bigger scale than either of us could achieve on our own. And that's why you'll find that the strong, confident leaders—the peacemakers—are the ones who have built a vibrant high-trust environment where the best people want to work.

Then in the second article, “How Authenticity Improves Company Performance,” we unpacked the idea that when we lead with Authenticity, we earn our team's trust. They can believe in us because they see us, day-in-and-day-out, making the hard choices to speak with honesty and be our true selves. And it’s only through this spirit of openness and dialogue that true peace can thrive and, ultimately, transform your company’s performance.

Now, in the final article of this series, we introduce the business outcome of Peacemaking: Stronger Team.

The idea here is that many leaders assume that a strong, cohesive team means that there’s little to no conflict—that everyone should think alike and get along. These leaders shame people who are vocal with their disagreement, telling them that they’re “being negative” and need to “change their attitude” and “get with the program.”

While these leaders have cultivated the appearance of cohesion, the reality is that they have created an environment that undermines trust and ultimately weakens the team.

As Patrick Lencioni writes in “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team,” “If we don’t trust one another, then we aren’t going to engage in open, constructive, ideological conflict. And we’ll just continue to preserve a sense of artificial harmony.”

In other words, a “Stronger Team” is one that encourages constructive conflict—and not stifles it—to produce genuine harmony and peace. So, it’s the true peacemaker who is uniquely qualified to build a consistently high-performing team.

The Application: Promoting Peace through Candor

How do you apply the practice of Peacemaking to produce Stronger Teams throughout your organization?

When consulting with leadership teams at Legacy Advisory Partners, we advise clients to begin by examining the dynamics within their company. Are there bottlenecks, at any level of the organization, that could be stifling open and honest communication?
For example, you could be a great role model for promoting candid conversations with your team. But what if you have middle managers who haven’t bought into the practice of Peacemaking?

In that case, you’ll likely discover that those managers have created a culture of fear within their departments that silences “negative” voices, promotes political posturing, and, ultimately, produces cynicism.

As McCord writes, “Trust is based on honest communication, and I find that employees become cynical when they hear half-truths. Cynicism is a cancer. It creates a metastasizing discontent that feeds on itself, leading to smarminess and fueling backstabbing.”

How do you change this dynamic in your company?

Be clear about your expectations—that Peacemaking should be practiced and promoted at all levels in the company. And then paint a picture of what that should look like in practice.

For example, when McCord was at Netflix, she created a now-famous presentation that still serves as the defining document for the company’s culture. (For the full slide deck, click here.)

In that presentation (slide 17), she breaks down one of Netflix's nine core values—Honesty—into specific traits that all employees are expected to demonstrate, including:

  • You are known for candor and directness
  • You are non-political when you disagree with others
  • You only say things about fellow employees you will say to their face
  • You are quick to admit mistakes.

Notice how those same points could also be used to describe Peacemaking.

The idea here is that if you want to build a Stronger Team through Peacemaking, communicate your expectations so that everyone is on the same page.

Being Comfortable with Conflict

Peacemaking also produces a safe environment for employees to engage in conflict that leads to genuine harmony and team cohesion.

As Lencioni puts it, “It is key that leaders demonstrate restraint when their people engage in conflict, and allow resolution to occur naturally, as messy as it can sometimes be. This can be a challenge because many leaders feel that they are somehow failing in their jobs by losing control of their teams during conflict.”

But we must all realize that it's in the crucible of conflict that our team members can develop their collective Peacemaking "muscles" as they work through their issues and build trust with one another. It's in that type of environment where employees feel safe to, as McCord put it, "focus like crazy on doing a great job together.”

Key Takeaways

To recap, here are the key takeaways for how you can build a high-trust, high-performing culture through Peacemaking.

#1. Set clear expectations.
Make the practice of Peacemaking a top priority for all levels of the company. Model it. Promote it. And hold your people accountable for living up to it.

#2. Paint a picture.
Outline specific traits that help your team see what Peacemaking should look like in practice.

#3. Embrace (constructive) conflict.
Don’t fear disagreements. Instead, allow them to bubble up to the surface as quickly as possible so your team can work through them. Remember, it’s through the crucible of conflict that the greatest teams are forged.

The Bottom Line

Imagine what your company could achieve if you could get everybody working together in their areas of giftedness, consistently and over a long period, all focused on the same vision.

It sounds counterintuitive, but this level of team cohesion is only possible in a high-trust culture that offers a safe place for employees to engage in conflict and work through disagreements.

And that “safe place” is protected when we promote Peacemaking throughout the company.

If you'd like to learn how to expand your influence and impact, then join me on this journey to becoming a Virtue-Based Leader by subscribing below to receive my best content sent to your inbox. Subscribe Here

About the Author:  J. David Harper, Jr. serves as CEO and principal of Legacy Advisory Partners, an Atlanta, Georgia-based firm that provides total retirement plan advisory services that give clients a greater competitive advantage to attract and retain top talent. David is also the author of the book “The Great 8: A New Paradigm for Leadership” that teaches business leaders how they can tap into eight timeless “virtues” to expand their influence and achieve sustainable success for their organizations.