Team Building: Build Trust and Manage Conflict for Effective Teams

April 6, 2005
How do you get team members to be less guarded and to say what they really think and feel? It starts with trust, says Cynthia Palka, president of Future Map, Inc.
By Cynthia Palka, President, Future Map, Inc.One of my pharmaceutical clients recently asked me how he could get his team members to be less political and express how they really think and feel with each other. I immediately thought of Patrick Lencioni, an expert on managing team dysfunction, and Alexander Hiam, whose work focuses on effective conflict negotiation. Both Lencioni and Hiam agree that effective teams need trust and healthy conflict management in order to open meaningful lines of communication and eventually reach goals.It starts with trustTrust is the foundation of real teamwork. Politics is choosing your words and actions based on how you want others to react rather than what you really think. Trust is confidence that your peers' intentions are good, so there is no need to be protective or “political” around them.How much trust is present in your team? Using Lencioni’s diagnostic tool [1], ask yourself how you think your team members would scale the following statements (usually, sometimes, or rarely):
  • Team members openly admit their weaknesses and mistakes.

  • Team members know about one another's personal lives and are comfortable discussing them.

  • Team members apologize to one another when they say or do something inappropriate or damaging to the team.
Another way to gauge trust in a team is to look for behavioral signs suggesting a lack of trust. Are team members concealing weaknesses and mistakes from one another, hesitating to ask for help or constructive feedback, holding grudges, or dreading meetings? These are just some of the signs to look for.Trust isn’t built overnight. Two exercises in particular can help to start the process. The first is a “personal histories” exercise, in which team members share information about their families, hometown, hobbies, first job, worst job, etc. This allows them to relate to each other on a more personal basis and see each other as human beings with life stories and interesting backgrounds.A “team effectiveness” exercise is one in which members identify the most important contribution that each of their peers makes to the team, and one area that each member must either improve upon or eliminate for the good of the team. This may make some members uncomfortable or vulnerable, of course. “Behavior-based feedback,” which considers how an individual’s behavior impacts the team or project, is best.Dealing with conflictThis last exercise may even lead to conflict. Trusting teams, however, are able to engage in “healthy conflict” or an unfiltered debate about ideas. For a team to manage conflict, each member needs to understand his or her dominant conflict-handling style and how to “flex” this style to ensure effective conflict resolution. Hiam has defined five conflict-handling styles [2]:
  • Avoid (I Lose, You Lose)
  • Accommodate (I Lose, You Win)
  • Compromise (We Both Win, We Both Lose)
  • Compete (I Win, You Lose)
  • Collaborate (I Win, You Win)
Since not all team members will have collaboration as a dominant style, it will take an investment of time and energy to resolve conflict situations. To increase a team’s ability to engage in “healthy” conflict, first start by acknowledging that conflict is productive. Encourage team members to air their opinions and openly work through sensitive issues. Acknowledge situations in which conflict becomes uncomfortable for some team members, and reiterate the importance of staying engaged and working through issues. Refuse to interact when emotions are high.Tools such as Hiam’s Dealing With Conflict Instrument and the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument can help team members better understand their natural inclinations around conflict and develop more flexibility in conflict situations.References
  • Lencioni, P. The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. Jossey-Bass, 2002
  • Hiam, A. Dealing With Conflict Instrument. HRD Press, 2005
About the AuthorCynthia L. Palka is president of Future Map, Inc., a professional coaching and consulting firm that helps organizations and their executives master change and create success from the inside out. Palka holds an M.S. degree in Biochemistry and is a Certified Empowerment Coach (CEC) by the Institute of Professional Empowerment Coaching (IPEC). She can be reached by e-mail at [email protected].