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Is there artificial harmony in your team?

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Patrick M. Lencioni (if you don’t know who that is, go here first) defines artificial harmony as the point where teams lack healthy conflict, and instead choose to get on with the job instead, living with the things they don’t like or going out of their way to avoid confrontation. We'll take a look at why this isn’t a good thing.

Why does artificial harmony exist?

Think about daily life at work. Unless you’re a bulldozer, or a firm ESTJ, it’s highly likely you’ll want to get on with your coworkers, and reach a point where arguments and disagreements are an irregular occurrence. You may even be an introvert, or perhaps anxious in a work environment, preferring to keep your opinions to yourself and focus on your work.

This preference to avoid pain and suffering is a big contributor to artificial harmony.

How to spot artificial harmony

The easiest way to identify artificial harmony is to embed with your teams and simply watch how they interact. Choose a high stakes project or ask for a task to be completed, and look at the team dynamics. Is there a leader who remains unchallenged? Do some team members work quietly through the task? Are people going through the motions?

Also, is anyone challenging the project or the task you’ve given them?

And what about those 'water cooler chats', often peppered with an undercurrent of frustration, quiet mutterings or even hidden dissent. Rather than rock the boat and get it out in the open, some prefer to have a whinge to their clique without doing anything about it.

If you identify too much compliance, and low engagement, then there may be artificial harmony at play. But it’s a bit of a tightrope.

You may have heard of the ‘forming, storming, performing, norming’ mantra. If your teams are norming and performing, then they may be fully in sync and used to delivering great projects together. But even in the most integrated and engaged teams, there needs to be at least some conflict along the way, otherwise the lack of questioning could lead to a lack of innovation, poor decision making or even jadedness.

What’s the best way to deal with it?

Lack of healthy conflictis one of the five dysfunctions of a team, a book by Lencioni that uncovers simple, everyday office norms, and explains why they’re holding your teams back. When it comes to artificial harmony, we need to start with the thing that people may be avoiding: conflict.

Some organisations deal with conflict well, with open, honest cultures that encourage employees to challenge each other in an environment where understanding and trust are the norms. But for many of us, challenging a coworker, especially a superior or someone who isn’t particularly receptive to challenges, may be an outcome that leaves them feeling uncomfortable to the point where they'll suppress their feelings, or worse, look for another role where they believe things won't be as uncomfortable.

The easiest way to build that open and honest culture is by working on conflict together and upskilling teams on conflict resolution techniques and training. As many of us will be used to the ‘bad habits’ of conflict, like personal remarks or jumping straight to a defensive stance, the type of conflict that’s healthy at work needs some analysis and clarity.

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