the Athena Group

Athena Bulletin

Leading Teams Past Dysfunction and Conflict to Success


Have you ever been part of a workplace team, or some other collaborative process where things didn’t seem to flow well? Or maybe things felt polarized or even stuck? Well then, you’re not alone. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that it’s getting harder and harder for teams to collaborate across their differences and get good work done.

While collaboration has never been easy, we’re experiencing more volatility, uncertainty, conflicted ideologies, and cross purposes than ever before. This shows up in both our workplaces and our communities, stretching our capacities for effective collaboration to their limits.

To try and understand these dynamics and improve our collaborative capacities, it’s helpful to consult the work of expert, Patrick Lencioni and his research into the question of why so many organizations and teams struggle to collaborate and get the job done, especially during times of rapid change. In his book the Five Dysfunctions of a Team, Lencioni describes the five key elements of dysfunctionality that get in the way of team success. They are:

  • Inattention to Results. This is when individuals emphasize personal success, status, or ego over team success.  
  • Avoidance of Accountability. This is when people duck the responsibility to call out their peers on counterproductive behavior, which lowers overall team standards.
  • Lack of Commitment. This is when people feign buy-in for decisions made by the group, which creates ambiguity.
  • Fear of Conflict. This is when leaders and facilitators seek artificial harmony over constructive and at times even passionate debate.
  • Absence of trust. This is when leaders and others are unwilling to show vulnerability within the group.

Lencioni’s model is depicted as a pyramid, with Absence of Trust at the base and Inattention to Results at the point.


According to Lencioni, overcoming the absence of trust requires vulnerability or the willingness to take risks. It’s also important for leaders to be willing to admit that they don’t have all the answers and to genuinely invite other’s perspectives.  

The antidote to fear of conflict is candid debate in an environment where people feel “safe enough” that they can speak their opinions without fear of retribution. The antidote is also about ensuring that all voices are heard.  

Lack of commitment is a result of ambiguity about direction and priority among team members, and lack of healthy conflict and candid debate.  So, the same antidote to fear of conflict is also relevant here.  

Overcoming avoidance of accountability requires a level of real “buy in” that only comes when there’s a commitment, created when everyone feels safe to share contrary opinions, when they feel heard, when they feel that their ideas and opinions matter, and when they feel part of the decision-making process.

All of this, along with measuring results and providing other forms of feedback, builds trust and increases the likelihood that individual team members will place the needs of the group over their individual needs, which reduces the tendency towards inattention to results.

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 It’s hard to stress this enough but engaging effectively with conflict (or contrasting points of view) is clearly critical to team performance. Unfortunately, leaders who recognize this and know how to work effectively with differences and conflict seems to be the exception rather than the rule.

In fact, I observe that most leaders avoid conflict. Not out of any malicious intent, but likely, because of bad previous experiences with conflict, or because they simply don't know what to do with it when it emerges, or both. We may think that if we just ignore it, it will go away. We might seek harmony and agreement, or act as though negative emotions are unwelcome.  When we do this, however, we not only miss the opportunity for creativity and growth, we make the problem worse. Ultimately, we create dysfunctional, low-performing teams and this leads to less than stellar results.  

Through this lens, the work of the leader isn’t to smooth over conflict, but to bring all the team’s natural diversity to the surface where it can be worked with. If done skillfully and in a structured way, leaders can build what a recent Google study defined as ‘psychological safety’, where team members feel safe to take risks and feel vulnerable in front of each other (see the New York Times Magazine article What Google Learned from its Quest to Build the Perfect Team). Over time, teams can increase their ‘emotional fortitude’, establish healthier group norms, and improve overall team creativity.  

One very exciting model to support achievement of the above is CoResolve: Deep Democracy for Leaders. CoResolve provides a powerful and practical model to help leaders support their teams – while answering questions like:

  • How do I recognize the early signs of conflict, before they get too big?
  • How do I deal with the different forms of resistance that I observe in my team?
  • How do I work with conflict in a healthy way?  
  • How do I invite divergent opinions and actively seek alternative views (ones that are not in line with prevailing thinking)?  

The new norm for leaders then is about helping organizations, teams, facilitators and leaders at all levels build the capacity to use differences and inevitable conflict to their advantage so they can collaborate and get the job done.

To learn more about the CoResolve model, or to book an introductory training for your organization or team, send us an email.


Paul Horton is a leadership and strategy coach and organizational change professional with 25 years of experience working with the public, private, non-profit, and higher education sectors. He sees his work as helping leaders navigate complexity and change, lead with clarity, and achieve internal alignment and coherence. Paul specializes in using dialogue-based, participatory approaches to engage diverse perspectives, build social capital, and improve organizational outcomes. He is skilled at facilitating meetings where there is a high degree difference or divisiveness, and tha t generate personal insights and uncover innovative possibilities for moving forward. Paul is a principle member of The Athena Group.