Workday Rising: Management Guru Says Vulnerability and Conflict Build Strong Teams

Management and HR guru Patrick Lencioni got a standing ovation from Workday Rising attendees on Wednesday−hardly typical of a keynote address at a software conference. Yet it wasn’t difficult to see why they were pleased. Lencioni delivered a frank and often funny discourse on the importance of such things as vulnerability and conflict to successful leadership teams.

Lencioni drew much of his material from his book, “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable,” the third in a trilogy of fictional tales that portray real-life management mistakes. In 2008, Fortune named Lencioni one of “10 new gurus you should know.”

Lencioni told attendees at Workday’s annual gathering, to discuss its SaaS-based HCM and Financials solutions, that the No. 1 dysfunction of a team is lack of trust; “not predictable trust but vulnerability trust,” he said.

Power of One

Professionals should trust their colleagues enough to be able to admit when they’ve made a mistake, don’t have the answer or need help. “Vulnerability trust” needs to start with the executive team, Lencioni said. “When one member of a team can’t admit they’re vulnerable, or have a weakness, it spreads like a disease to the rest of the team.”

Lencioni told the real-life story of a consulting gig at a Silicon Valley technology company, where the top executive wouldn’t face up to what was exposed in an anonymous survey of his team: he had poor feedback and communication skills. Even worse, team members were too afraid to admit their concerns to the executive.

The leadership team wasn’t willing to fix its problems, and the company eventually spiraled down. While the media reported problems with strategy and products at the company, Lencioni said those issues originated with the bigger problem of an uncommunicative, untrusting leadership team.

“People say that when you’re a leader, [employees] are not supposed to see you sweat,” he said. “The fact is they see you sweat before you even know it.” Closely related to lack of trust, Lencioni said, is dysfunction No. 2: fear of conflict. “When you go to a meeting, you have to know people are not holding back. They are ‘not choosing their battles’,” Lencioni said. “They can be demure or demonstrative … but they have to tell what they think. When there is no disagreement, it’s a sign that (team members) are not putting all the ideas on the table.”

It’s perfectly reasonable, Lencioni said, for a leader to make decisions without consensus. As long as team members have their say, a decision can be made about the best way to proceed. He added that oftentimes leaders don’t disagree because they’re afraid of hurting others’ feelings. Yet disagreements about issues that don’t surface then “ferment,” and later emerge as disagreements among personalities.

Fear of conflict, Lencioni said, leads to dysfunction No. 3: lack of commitment. If people don’t weigh in, or feel they don’t have the voice to weigh in (likely due to lack of trust and unwillingness to be vulnerable), then they won’t buy in to decisions.

Lencioni described dysfunction No. 4 as avoidance of accountability, and finally, No. 5, lack of attention to results. Lencioni says lack of accountability is a problem facing many leadership teams. “When a leader sees signs of behavioral issues that lead to results problems, you have to have the courage to step in and say something. People need to be held accountable, and want to be accountable. They may not enjoy it at the moment, but it’s going to make them better (at their jobs).”

For me, Lencioni’s presentation was clearly built around the importance of good communications. Based on the applause and standing ovation, Workday customers and partners seemed impressed with what he communicated to them and his perspectives. What do you think? Is it okay for professionals and leaders to show their vulnerabilities to colleagues? Is conflict and disagreement always beneficial to decision making?