When was the last time your team had a heated debate? How comfortable is your team with conflict? Who is wasting energy by avoiding disagreement? Today’s guest blog, by Creative Coaching’s friend and associate Melissa Mehta, explores practical ways of being more comfortable with the conflict that’s crucial to your team’s success.
When I was new and green, a PR agency asked me to help them work out their purpose and mission. Way out of my depth, I set up my post-it notes and white board pens with a silent (and stultifying) prayer: ‘Don’t disagree with each other’. I had no idea how I would deal with any conflict that might arise.
Fear of conflict is a paralysing agent. Here’s what I wish I’d known back then.
We humans have a tendency to want to be right, stay safe and avoid uncertainty. Engaging in conflict feels risky and is vital for exploring a different way of doing things. This is how change happens, and without it we can’t progress. The more comfortable we can be with conflict, the easier it is to harness its power.
In his book, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, Patrick Lencioni says:
“Unfortunately, conflict is considered taboo in many situations, especially at work. And the higher you go up the management chain, the more you find people spending inordinate amounts of time and energy trying to avoid the kind of passionate debates that are essential to any team.”
So, if that’s all true, how do we encourage productive conflict?
Shift thinking (yours and theirs)….
Here’s what you need to think and talk about with your team (you might even want to share this post with them):
- Encourage ideological conflict (which is limited to concepts and ideas) as opposed to interpersonal conflict which attacks people
- Acknowledge that ideological conflict can feel like interpersonal conflict (it can be passionate, emotional, frustrating, and uncomfortable). This is why many teams avoid it
- Recognise that productive conflict produces the best results in the shortest time, with no conflict hangover or bad feelings. The team is then poised to take the next step
- Avoiding ideological conflict (to protect people’s feelings) risks unresolved frustrations spilling out behind the scenes. This is far more harmful than a (temporarily) uncomfortable open discussion
Shift behaviour (yours and theirs)….
Once you and your team are convinced of the benefits of embracing productive conflict, what’s next? Here are some practical ways Lencioni suggests to help ease into the discomfort.
- Consider assigning a ‘conflict miner’ (Lencioni’s term) to dig out disagreements hidden within the team. This takes courage and persistence to pursue the conflict until it is resolved. Appointing someone to be the official ‘miner’, with an objective point of view, makes it more comfortable to explore conflict explicitly
- Practise giving real time permission and encouragement to engage in healthy debate. Notice when anyone (including oneself) becomes uncomfortable, and point to it, with a reminder of the benefits of conflict. “I’m recognising I’m feeling strongly about this. The discussion is heated! I think it’s positive that we care this much. Let’s remember we’re doing this so we can really test our thinking and come up with a solution we can all get behind”
- Let the conflict play out. It’s tempting to want to protect one’s team from the discomfort of conflict. Learning to step back might feel like an abdication of responsibility as a leader. Trusting that the conversation will play out to its natural resolution builds the confidence of the team to engage in healthy conflict
As for the PR Agency gig, my facilitation instincts kicked in and I trusted the power of the group. I made sure everyone felt able to engage, there was healthy debate. It did get messy and the resolution was sweet and powerful. Now, I get excited when I see different opinions emerging. Moving towards ideological conflict is where the juicy learning and change happens.
Melissa is right, learning and change happen when teams find new ways to communicate. It’s something I’ve seen frequently with clients we’ve supported to build trust within their teams.
If you’d like to talk about how your team could better embrace productive conflict, to get the best results in the shortest time, please reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org.