When I tell people in my workshops that conflict is essential if teams are to perform well and be highly productive, it always provokes frowns and an uncomfortable shifting of chairs. “Do you mean that?” They ask. “Could we just say ‘strong conversations’ or ‘spirited debate’?”
Teams without conflict make poor decisions, don’t get buy-in from all members, choose safety over innovation and have boring meetings. They tend to be so risk-averse that the most dangerous phrase in business becomes their mantra: “We’ve always done it this way, let’s not rock the boat.” Without forward motion, grinding gradually to a halt is inevitable.
So how can we get over our negative perception of conflict and use it to lift commitment, get greater workplace satisfaction and help our teams make better decisions?
Creating an environment for healthy conflict
Firstly, we need to understand how to create an environment in which healthy conflict can happen, and its benefits can be realised. Part of this is to also understand how to recognise unhealthy conflict—negative, mean-spirited remarks masquerading as feedback, backbiting and personal attacks—and nip it in the bud. Ad hominem arguments may be acceptable in the courtroom, but they have no place in the office.
What this means for leaders is to show by example how to hear a concern or criticism without taking it personally and being defensive, and how to respond by guiding debate so that the matter under discussion and the finding of the best outcome remain the focus.
Sometimes, this can mean pointing out the elephant in the room: people often don’t feel safe voicing their concerns if an initiative is sponsored by someone in a position of power, and allowing people to voice the concerns that underpin such reticence can turn a culture of silence into a culture of debate. You might try playing devil’s advocate by disagreeing with your own position, or say “That’s just my thinking, what are your thoughts?” to frame the debate as a thinking process.
Think of someone you really trust. You can say to them “I don’t agree with that at all. The idea stinks. Shall we go get a beer and see if we can come up with a better one?” Now think about a work meeting. Could you say the same there (maybe without the beer), or would you politely nod and then air your disagreement later, to someone else? If you think that’s being diplomatic, Patrick Lencioni, author of The Five Dysfunctions of Teams, has a harsh reality-check: “We’ve crushed her spirit by talking about her afterwards, but, at least we didn’t disagree with her in the meeting”.
Avoidance of conflict isn’t keeping the peace or diplomacy. Lencioni says “those that avoid conflict actually doom themselves to revisiting issues again and again without resolution.”
The interpersonal skill set
Which brings me to the second point. Team members need to have the right interpersonal skill set with a combination of emotional intelligence, self-awareness and the ability to trust. Even healthy conflict can feel uncomfortable (for some more than others, and about certain issues more than others) and making sure that the conflict remains constructive, not destructive, even in the face of discomfort is a learned skill.
Interpersonal skills include knowing your own motives for voicing a conflicting opinion. If your motivation is to put someone down or lift yourself up at another’s expense then it’s personal. If it’s about your own stubbornness or need to control, it’s personal. In Eric Berne’s Transactional Analysis theory of interpersonal psychology, you’re behaving like a child or a parent rather than as an adult peer.
Conflict without trust is just politics. The bottom line is that everyone needs to trust that they will be heard and respected if they voice their opinion. That doesn’t mean implementing every mad idea—healthy conflict is the opposite of blind acceptance. It means testing ideas the same way they test aeroplanes—trying to crash them means they fly better in the end.
How do high-performing teams keep conflict healthy?
- Focus: they stay focused on tasks, concepts and ideas and don’t tolerate personal attacks.
- Composure: they talk calmly even when the topic has an emotional charge so that everyone can say their piece without being shut down.
- Emotional intelligence: they acknowledge and respect the presence of high emotion—it indicates that people care, after all—but don’t let it stifle debate.
- Trust: every member of the team creates trust by speaking up directly, not at the water-cooler, and by being honest about their own vulnerabilities.
- Self-awareness: each member is aware of how their emotions impact their behaviour and how their behaviour impacts others.
- Give and take: they are humble and express opinions as debatable thoughts, not certainties set in stone.
- Responsibility: they don’t blame, but do take responsibility for what could be done better—and then they do it.
- Maturity: they use empathy, inclusive body language, listening, reflecting and paraphrasing—they speak as adults, not children or parents.
- Commitment: they don’t look for consensus but do expect commitment both to the process of healthy conflict and the outcome. All members commit to acting on the team’s decisions—even when they don’t get their own way.