Work, like everything else in life, is perfect. Things go perfectly according to plan and everyone I interact with is perfectly amazing, and perfectly easy to get along with.

-No one, ever

It is no secret, nor surprise, that teams that work well together outperform those with constant in-fighting and backstabbing, especially over the long term.

However, creating and maintaining a high functioning team is not as simple as snapping your fingers. The issues that come up that need to be resolved and that takes time, effort, and emotional labor.

Let’s unpack where many of these problems come from and the process of overcoming these very common occurrences.

So, what’s the problem?

Patrick Lencioni, author of The Five Dysfunctions of a Team outlines the following reasons why teams break down and stop working well together.

The Five Dysfunctions of the Team (Pyramid)
The Five Dysfunctions of the Team (Pyramid)

I agree with all of these, though I don’t intend to rehash the well worn territory in that book. You can read the book for Patrick’s take on it. I recommend it.

Instead, I’m going to take trust from this list and add three more fundamental reasons why relationships break down, primarily at work. I call it the Friction Ladder, and it’s one you don’t want to climb if you can avoid it.

#Ladder Step 1: There is no trust

Trust colors everything.

  • It’s what allows us to give people the benefit of the doubt.
  • It’s what allows us to go against our own judgment and follow someone else.

It is hard to take someone elses’ advice or appreciate their work, if you don’t trust them. Trust, appropriately in The Five Dysfunctions pyramid, is the foundation. I wholeheartedly agree.

When two people don’t trust each other it can lead to many problems between them. In fact, I believe the other three reasons why relationships break down is intimately related to trust.

For instance, when two people don’t trust each other…

#Ladder Step 2: Someone may feel scared or threatened

“That new hire sure is ambitious. What happens to me if they shine too brightly?”

When you don’t trust one of your teammates, you may infer ill-intent. You may find yourself concerned about their impact on your safety and security at work. Because you don’t trust them, you may wonder what they are saying to other employees, or worse, the person you report to.

When two people don’t trust each other, and either begins to feel fearful, it creates the conditions where they may find that…

#Ladder Step 3: There’s misalignment

When two people trust each other, alignment is easier to achieve. You hone in on what you agree on, find common goals, and find a path forward…because there’s trust. Misalignment can happen for two very common reasons:

  1. Two people believe different things or have different understanding of an idea For example:
    • What is better cash or accrual accounting?
    • Are gradients aesthetically pleasing in designs?
    • Can you wear black and navy together?
  2. Two people have different goals For example:
    • You want to maintain the business, they want to grow the business.
    • They want to switch vendors to find someone cheaper, you want to switch vendors to find someone better.
    • You want to save the world, they want to buy a new Ferrari.

Misalignment and disagreement are closely related but distinctly different. You don’t have to agree to be aligned, and even if you’re in agreement, you aren’t necessarily in alignment. Alignment is about trust. It’s about two people, both willing to put aside what they want in serve of what we need.

However, when two people are misaligned or disagree enough the may just find that…

#Ladder Step 4: They just don’t like each other

This one is perhaps the toughest to get over.

There are a multitude of reasons that two people don’t like each other beyond the aforementioned ones. Most commonly, it’s because the person is your complete opposite, or they are just like you.

Other reasons might include that someone said something out of line, didn’t take accountability, reminds you of someone else that bothered you in the past…or hundreds of other possibilities.

At work, the most likely cause is that things escalated to this point once two people stop trusting each other, one (or both) feel threatened or scared, and find themselves to be frequently misaligned or in disagreement.

No matter why two people don’t like each other, this is not a good place to get to.

The Higher You Go…

Here’s the thing about ladders…the higher you go, the more dangerous things get. Yet at the same time, the more stable and sturdy the base of your ladder is, the safer it is to climb higher.

If two people trust each other, they can overcome fear, misalignment, and even dislike. If they don’t, then every step on the ladder gets harder to fix.

What can you do about it?

Your mission, should you choose to accept is, is to create trust, assurance, and affinity.

brown envelope on gray surface
This message will self-destruct

I am a firm believer in productive conflict which is the practice of taking direct action to arrive at a resolution. While conflict may be uncomfortable, the immovable goal of the interaction is to arrive at a resolution one way or the other.

Don’t hesitate. Don’t let this fester any longer.

Call a meeting and prepare to use the following tools.

Disarm your opponent

The first thing you need to do is to begin building trust if you want to progress to dealing with any of the other issues on the Friction Ladder. This requires everyone to lay their weapons down.

There are 3 moves that you should use, in sequence, to disarm someone.

  1. Reframe them in your mind. They are not your “opponent.” They are a disengaged ally, and you need to take some responsibility for why. Do not progress to the second step until you have done this. So long as you see someone as your enemy, you cannot build trust, assurance, or affinity. If you find yourself struggling with letting go of grudges, this may help: How To Let Go Of Grudges and Move Forward: A Guide
  2. Validate and acknowledge. You may never get anyone to lay down their sword unless you stop making them feel defensive. To do this, you need to stop judging them and stop making them wrong so they don’t feel the need to defend themselves and fight back. Try to understand where they are coming from and validate their perspective. Acknowledge your role in the friction.
  3. Put your weapons down. This requires being vulnerable, because you need to apologize. This isn’t necessarily about admitting wrongdoing, though it’s always helpful to look for where you were out of line. By apologizing first, you create the space for others to do the same.

Do these three moves in this order and you will successfully disarm 95% of those who you find yourself having friction with. Once they are disarmed, you can both come to the table ready to find resolutions.


Now that everyone has (hopefully) calmed down and is willing to hear each other, you need to get realigned.

Start by setting a context for the discussion.

You want to make sure that everyone is there for the same reasons. This is a great time to illustrate what alignment looks like. At the start of the meeting, you might say something like this…

Hey so and so,

I know that you and I have not been seeing eye-to-eye lately and the reason I wanted to meet is so that we can fix that. My goal for this meeting is that you and I are able to get on the same page and working toward the same common goals, with and understanding of what we each need from one another. What do you say, are you up for it?

Now, obviously the other person could be confrontational and decline, but if you’ve followed step one of disarming them, they should be more receptive.

Next, talk about your goals.

Do this in a structured way where one person talks about their goals and priorities, and then switch. Look for points of agreement and disagreement. Where there are disagreements, give each person the chance to explain why those things are important and where possible, explain why being aligned on those goals is important.

For example, does one person have sway and influence over team members to such a degree that any misalignment threatens the success of the project? Is there something that you could be doing to help out, but have been neglecting to pay attention to that puts this other person in a jam?

After you’ve discussed goals, talk about what you each need from each other to ensure success in your respective roles.

At the end of this exercise, you should be aligned in knowing each other’s goals and priorities along with how you can help one another.


Once the meeting has concluded, the work really begins. Don’t just talk the talk, walk the walk.

The Platinum Rule “Treat people the way they want to be treated”

-Code of Trust, by Robin Dreeke

…and what do we know about people?

“The deepest principle in human nature is the craving to be appreciated.” -William James

Knowing these two things, your next step should set out to ensure that you are appreciating and acknowledging their work. Look for opportunities to be generous and help out. Make sure you’re doing it in a way that is supportive and not self-serving. Your goal is to exhibit the behavior you want emulated. Treat them the way they want to be treated so maybe they will treat you how you want to be treated.

People tend to like those they can trust to have their backs, who go out of their way to help, and who appreciate and celebrate them.

Be open, be curious, be generous.

An Advanced Beginner’s Guide

These are all simple concepts yet they become extremely difficult once our emotions are engaged. I know countless negotiation and conflict resolution techniques, I read people easily, and yet, I find myself having trouble navigating these situations just as much as anyone else. That’s because despite how easy it is to talk about laying your weapons down, or validating others, it’s so much easier to be self-righteous, to be dismissive, to be right and make them wrong.

But none of that shit helps you. It’s just a trick to convince your ego that it’s all their fault.

Friction is bound to happen at work, with colleagues, with clients, and with vendors. Friction will happen at home, with your partner, with your kids, with your in-laws, and with your friends.

These same steps apply. Try it out, and don’t get discouraged if it doesn’t work 100% of the time. However, I can guarantee you that it will beat responding emotionally, 99% of the time.

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