Many well-managed companies struggle with the concept of high-performance work teams. Part of this struggle is operational as decision rights, formerly owned by middle managers, must be delegated to operational teams. Part of this challenge is cultural as building solid teams requires a certain amount of controlled conflict to be successful. It is this cultural aspect of the transition to high-performance teams that most frequently derails the transition. Building strong teams requires open, honest and forthright communication. It is only through this type of communication that trust can be created. The process of creating this dialogue, however, involves conflict. The organizations that fail to embrace this conflict as a natural and healthy part of the team-building process are unlikely to succeed in deploying effective high-performance work teams.

Forming  Storming Norming Performing

The forming → storming norming performing model of team development is well-known, but many organizations fail to capitalize on this concept when building teams.1 Because conflict is perceived to be a negative influence in the workplace, many managers seek to suppress disagreements and challenges to authority. Doing so, however, also suppresses communication.2 In groups that severely suppress all forms of conflict and challenge, employees feel disenfranchised and are unlikely to share opinions and ideas, or ask questions. Not only does this impact morale, motivation and acceptance of change but it inhibits the transition of teams from the forming stage to the norming stage of development – preventing high-performance teams from bonding and becoming effective. Teams that cannot progress through the storming phase do not share common work styles, expectations, roles and responsibilities, or even goals as to the ultimate aim of the team’s work. In short, these teams remain groups of individual contributors who do not share ideas, balance workloads and support one another. They are not yet teams.

Some leaders will justify the suppression of conflict within teams in terms of the organization’s readiness to self-manage.3 This is a fair concern since teams not ready for self-management can easily get locked in cycles of conflict that are destructive.1 Conflict, however, serves a vital purpose in the cohesion of effective teams; automatically quelling all conflict inhibits team development. Instead of stopping all conflict, leaders must help teams to channel and exploit conflict in a productive manner. By building the team’s ability to manage their internal conflicts, leaders enhance the team’s readiness for change, making them much more able to self-manage. This is a critical step in the development of high-performing work teams.

The ultimate goal of the forming storming norming performing model is for teams to establish internal norms of behavior. These behavioral norms allow all of the team members to predict how others in the group will behave, thus allowing them to perform as an integrated unit rather than just a group of individual contributors.1 These norms are, however, frequently situational; as working conditions and expectations change, it is important for these norms to be refocused and updated. True high-performance work teams are constantly cycling through the forming storming norming performing stages; they must not only be resilient to conflict, they should learn to exploit it as a tool for accelerating change.4 When conflict is actively managed, it does not devolve into destructive behavior. Much to the contrary, as the level of disagreement increases, these teams perform better – this is constructive discord.

What Is Constructive Discord?

If a team is squabbling but getting their work done, this is not constructive discord. For your team’s conflict to be constructive, it must be focused, productive and, most importantly, it must propel the team from forming around a problem to performing as they execute the solution to that problem. At its heart, constructive discord is debate. It is a learning-and-teaching process where the issues, needs and views of each individual member of the team are brought forward. Each issue in which the team does not have full consensus is explored, vetted and then either adopted, rejected or modified to meet the needs of the team. Nothing is suppressed or withheld, everyone is comfortable with sharing ideas and it is the merits of those ideas that determine their viability rather than the political clout of the person who voiced it. When teams are actively in the mode, ideas are rapidly processed and the team is energized by the process so that they perform at a high level.

Elements of Constructive Discord

  • Debates are never personal. Teams must learn to focus on problems, issues and ideas rather than personalities, credit and blame. This is not easy for teams. The American management focuses much more on who did the work rather than what work was done or how it was performed. To achieve the transition, teams must be led by example and constant reinforcement must be given to keep the teams focused on the problem at hand.5
  • Anything and everything is open to constructive challenge. The fastest way to derail high-performance work teams is to limit what they can and cannot challenge in the course of solving problems. This is not to say that there are not unassailable principles which a company holds dear, but rather that allowing these principles to be challenged and defended increases the buy-in of teams for those principles. Allowing teams to openly debate all issues, even when they know they cannot alter that issue, allows them to more fully understand that issue.
  • There are rules about how to disagree. Just as boxers have rules about how to fight, so must any team. These rules should keep the teams focused on presenting and defending ideas with facts and supporting evidence.6 Making this transition will require active leadership coaching but if done well, an environment will be created in which everyone on the team feels safe discussing any issue without fear of retribution or damage to their career. This radically improves a team’s ability to solve problems and be creative.
  • There are no ranks within the team. There is organizational position, reporting structure and accountabilities but these must not manifest themselves as deference to authority within teams.7 When teams allow their ideas to be filtered through the chain of command, only the most conventional, safe and uncontroversial ideas will get air time. This will effectively limit the creativity to the ideas of the boss and ensure that innovations do not occur; leadership must prevent this. Teams must be encouraged, their ideas promoted, and both their successes and failures celebrated for open dialogue on all issues to occur. Leaders must be tolerant of ideas and even some behaviors of which they disapprove. In addition, leaders must be brave enough to stand with their teams and stand up for their teams even when their peers are uncomfortable and unhappy with the decisions made.
  • It is vital that the teams explore some “bad” ideas. There is a myth perpetuated by the good intentions of people who want to promote inclusiveness and dialog that there are “no bad ideas.” There are bad ideas; failure to acknowledge this leads to chaos. The key is to teach teams to not be afraid to explore all ideas and judge them on their merits rather than prejudge based on conventional wisdom.8 This requires that the team consider and test some ideas that ultimately will not work. In fact, a good test for whether a team is fully considering all the options available to them is the proportion of ideas that they consider and ultimately reject. The healthiest and most inclusive teams reject a huge proportion of all the ideas they consider. These are also the teams that create the most innovative solutions.
  • The focus must always be on learning. The high performance that is sought for in work teams does not come from superior effort, but rather from superior know-how. While some of this know-how is structural and resides in things like standard work and workplace organization, most of this know-how comes from teams learning how and why their processes perform in the manner that they do. This allows the team to apply this knowledge in order to get the results that they desire. Leadership must constantly focus on creating the optimum environment for this learning to occur.

Recognizing Constructive Discord

The key to high-performance work teams is creating the proper environment for those teams to thrive. The presence of constructive discord is a symptom of having achieved that environment. Other symptoms include:

  • Trust: When people know the plan and how their team members will behave in the execution of that plan, they develop a trust. This trust allows for calculated risk taking.
  • Creativity: Because all the options have the opportunity to be fairly considered and tested and because the social penalties for pursuing ideas that ultimately are rejected have been removed, more options for the solution to each problem will be considered. This sets the stage for out-of-the-box thinking and creativity.
  • Empowerment: There is no boss to blame. This means team members must accept accountability for their decisions. They are also free of the “they said we must” political pressure that allows teams to shift responsibility to others. With high-performance work teams free to explore, propose, debate and eventually adopt the strategies that best fit their understanding of the aims, goal and nuances of each issue that the team is chartered to address, the natural result is for the team to feel empowered to act and accountable for the results of those actions.
  • Transparency: Because the focus has been shifted from who is accountable to what it is that the team is doing, the natural result is more transparency regarding how decisions are made. Furthermore, since debate and open challenge of all issues is being promoted, the “losing” party in every debate will likely be vigilant and keep tabs on the results. This checks-and-balance approach enhances transparency.

Fostering an Environment of Constructive Discord

How can this environment where constructive discord thrives be fostered? All too often leaders attempt to drive change by simply demanding the outcomes. They treat measures like empowerment as if it were salt – throw some in and expect changes. Unfortunately, unlike salt, these “sprinkled” improvements are not persistent because the proper environment has not been created for them to succeed. Failing to set the stage leads to an environment in which the organization rejects the improvements before they have had time to fully develop and where leadership concludes “this doesn’t work here.” It does not work if it is set up to fail; failing to set it up is planning to fail.

To set the stage leaders must actively build the right environment. This means they must allow and encourage open and constructive criticism of all ideas and plans. Key performance indicators (KPIs) must be openly shared within the company and the consequences, both positive and negative, for these KPI trends must be honestly discussed; everyone must be actively encouraged and rewarded for sharing ideas, experimenting and challenging the status quo. All processes, systems and functions must be open to investigation for how they can better perform. Successes must be celebrated but also failures when those failures result in an increased understanding of how the business process actually works. Leadership must encourage everyone to set meaningful goals and engage in productive behaviors to reach those goals. Finally, leaders must honestly, actively and, above all, visibly model the behaviors they seek to instill in the organization.

It is important to remember that the amount of conflict is a good measure of the health of your teams. Just as surely as too much conflict is an indicator of trouble, so too is too little. Just like a good story needs a moment of conflict to be compelling, so to must teams have their moments of conflict as they progress through the forming → storming → norming → performing lifecycle of team development. Properly channeled conflict, in fact, is a useful tool in building the environment where high-performance work teams are possible. To create this constructive discord, however, leaders must build the environment. Leaders must model and actively encourage the behavior that fosters debate, open dialogue and learning. It only happens when it is made to happen.


  1. Tuckman, Bruce. (1965). “Development Sequence in Small Groups.” Psychological Bulletin, 63(6), 384-399.
  2. Lawler, Jennifer. (2010, June). “The Real Cost of Workplace Conflict.” Entrepreneur.
  3. Hershey, P.A. (1969). “Lifecycle of Leadership.” Training and Development Journal, 23(5), 26-34.
  4. Kotter, John P. (1996). Leading Change. Harvard Business School Press.
  5. Walton, Mary. (1986). The Deming Management Method. Penguin Group.
  6. Reh, F. John. (n.d.). “Disagree Without Being Disagreeable.” About Money. Accessed February 12, 2016.
  7. Kerr, James M. (2010). The Executive Checklist: A Guide for Setting Direction and Managing Change. Palgrave Macmillan.
  8. Bens, Ingrid M. (1999). “Facilitation at a Glance.” A Pocket Guide of Tools and Techniques for Effective Meeting Facilitation.
About the Author