Navigate Conflict & Increase Productivity

iStock_000000650824XSmall copyOne of my top themes is Connectedness and another is Ideation. This might explain how some of the best ideas of other, really smart people come together in my head to make useful new ideas. Here, I will explain how a simple concept in Patrick Lencioni’s book, The Advantage, can guide our most difficult conversations in the workplace and be enhanced by Dr. John Gottman’s collective advice on forming sound relationships, based on his mountains of research on common reasons relationships fail, and characteristics of what he calls “masters” of relationships.

Patrick explains that, on a spectrum of conflict from “artificial harmony” to all out turf wars and personal attacks, teams and organizations sometimes stay in the “artificial harmony” zone out fear that any conflict in the workplace might escalate to the other end of that spectrum. But, he argues, teams are most productive when they can engage in honest, candid conflict over which tactics, strategies, and policies they should pursue.


Furthermore, teams that are in a space of “vulnerability based trust” can then hold each other accountable for behavior that might be holding the team back from generating the results they are aiming for. In my mind, that region of turf wars and personal attacks is characterized by what Dr. Gottman calls “the four horsemen of the apocalypse” in relationships. These are criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling.

When members of a team find themselves in this zone, which will INEVITABLY happen, the antidote is that they make what Dr. Gottman calls “repair” attempts. This is where Strengths Based Leadership (SBL) can make a real difference. The data shows that it is the receiver of the repair attempt that will make or break the relationship. If I have Activator, Achiever, and Positivity in my top five themes and a co-worker with Deliberative repeatedly raises concerns and questions about all my bright ideas and attempts to move things forward, eventually they might blurt out, “You are so impulsive and reckless!” If they catch themselves and apologize for being critical, I need to have enough Positive Sentiment Override for that coworker to accept the repair and move forward.


In SBL, we talk about the need to “love all 34 themes.” In this example, whether I view my coworker’s actions as undermining me or genuinely trying get our collective efforts to be as effective as possible, is a choice I can make. Assuming my colleague will make a repair attempt, if I can stay in a space of Positive Sentiment Override, I will be the key to maintaining a sound relationship with them. Dr. Gottman calls this developing a “habit of mind” to, as we say in SBL, “lead with positive intent.”

When we want to get better at holding each other accountable for behavior, Dr. Gottman has some more really good advice. He and his team (his wife, Dr. Julie Gottman, is a co-creator of The Art and Science of Love workshops) recommend that we practice how to complain without blame, self-soothe, and be open to feedback and influence. Each of these deserve their own blog post, so more about that another day.

As leaders, if we want to increase our ability to include and engage everyone we work with in honest, candid conflict over tactics, strategies, and policies we are going to pursue, we must learn to ask key questions that stimulate those discussions. I have found the Liberating Structures to be among the most effective ways to get this started.

Where does your workplace fall in the “spectrum of conflict”?

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