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Bring On The Healthy Team Conflict (Team Series 4/10)

How do you encourage healthy team conflict?

The ways your team interacts with each other can tell you a lot about the wellbeing of the whole.  One of the healthiest signs of a great team is to have smooth communication, and the way to do that is to have agreements or interaction norms that allow you to define who you want to be together. 

When teams first form, there can be surface-level harmony until they have gone through different seasons and have encountered significant disagreements. At that crucial point, they can reach a favorable resolution in both process and outcomes and cross the threshold to having an authentic team relationship for excellent performance to occur, or they can reach an impasse and remain in the stormy stage where team bonding and results are harder to come by.

To better navigate the rocky stage that every team goes through, expect, and even invite healthy conflict. 

There is nothing wrong with conflict, tension, and disagreement.  Some people can be so nervous about it that they choose not to engage in a messy back and forth process for the sake of perennial harmony.  This mentality has its limitations because building on other’s ideas only gives you incremental thinking.  Worse yet, Writer Walter Lippmann maintains, “where we all think alike, nobody thinks very much.”  In contrast, when we disagree with each other, we can see a variety of perspectives and shine a light on our blind spots or incomplete ways of thinking.  We need disagreement to improve the quality of ideas and expose the risk inherent in the plan.  Plus, honest and respectful conversations usually yields the best results.  The opposite – passive-aggressiveness, silence, or even insincere contributions can be destructive to a culture.

Author Liane Davey outlined three specific techniques to help embrace productive conflict: 

1. Clarify Roles.  By highlighting how different people’s jobs drive different agendas, it can lead to excellent outcomes. Liane provides an example relating to the sales and production teams being in the same room; the production team might want more standardization and efficiency, while the sales group might argue for the opposite – more flexibility and customization to meet individual client needs.  There is an inherent tension between prioritizing the product for consistent quality versus favoring the customer for optimal satisfaction but likely a hit to the budget.  This is an important step for alerting people that they are expected to argue and disagree because they have different instructions for what they are representing.  This helps to depersonalize things, and you can see how your coworker is not living their life with the sole aim to frustrate you; in fact, they are just doing their job.  Being on the same team means you all want the same big-picture result.  Normalizing the tension will free people to spar in a more empathetic way as they strive towards finding the best answer constructively. 

2. Use personality assessments.  This can highlight differences in what people are paying attention to.  Maybe you have one person’s style who is high on the conscientiousness trait with a keen eye for detail, and another that is high on the openness chart and prone to the macro view.  Knowing your team’s orientation can create balanced groups and lead to productive disagreements.  

3. Set ground rules around dissension.  Ask your team to define the behavior that contributes to productive conflict?  What kind of engagements can improve decision-making and trust, and what kind can detract from it? 

Some behaviors can include: 

·       Be kind:  Disagree with the idea respectfully, not the person. Ad hominem attacks and wild bursts of anger should not be a thing. 

·       Be open-minded:  Do not reject an opposing point immediately, but follow a one-minute rule (accept an idea for one minute before you try and find anything wrong with it).  Think about the possibility – what if I was wrong? How willing am I to change my mind?

·       Be brief:  This allows many ideas to be voiced.  It is also hard to tease out ideas if one person is dominating the whole time.

·       Stay on topic:  This enables each subject to be flushed out before moving to the next issue. Avoid the trap of allowing people to take the conversation in a variety of directions because then it will be really challenging to make progress on each matter.

This sample set of ground rules can create contained chaos and lead to productive conflict. 

While some teams choose to shy away from conflict, the best teams know how to invite healthy conflict because it makes the overall group much more effective.  When you clarify roles, use data to create diverse groups, and set ground rules for disagreements, you cultivate the conditions for the best results to emerge. 

Quote of the day: “Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen” -Winston Churchill.

Q: How do you get your team to engage in merry conflict? Comment and share with us, we would love to hear from you!

*The next blog in this team series 5/10 will talk about the importance of universal agreements.

As a Leadership Development & Executive Coach, I work with teams to set up universal agreements for peak performance. Contact me to learn more.

How do you encourage healthy team conflict?

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