How to make sure conflict in teams is healthy
Roz Thornton and Becs Knill, Founding Partners, Roots Transformation
By its very nature, conflict is uncomfortable and that’s probably why so many people instinctively try to avoid it. Most of us can identify at least one family member who avoids conflict at all costs, taking the role of peacekeeper to preserve a veneer of calm! But conflict, or having conflicting views and ideas, is completely natural in all relationships - personal and professional - and if productive, it is a very good thing.
Before we talk about how leaders can make sure the conflict in their teams is constructive rather than destructive, let’s briefly consider why healthy conflict is essential for teams to be truly effective.
According to Patrick Lencioni’s ‘Five Behaviours’ framework, healthy conflict is the second behaviour necessary for building cohesive leadership teams (after vulnerability-based trust). He talks about it as ‘conflict around issues in the pursuit of truth’. When there is conflict avoidance in teams - often born out of team members fearing they’ll be considered negative or not ‘team players’ if they voice a difference of opinion - leaders and organisations can go astray.
As Margaret Hefferman said in her ‘Dare to disagree’ TED Talk, “Great teams, relationships and businesses allow people to deeply disagree”.
When people feel psychologically safe, they will take social risks such as admitting failures and asking for help – otherwise known as showing vulnerability. The existence of trust among team members is a crucial factor in creating psychological safety - the more people show their vulnerability, the more trust they will cultivate in their relationships. And the more trust they have, the safer they will feel.
Psychological safety in teams also allows people to speak their minds, be creative and willing to stick their necks out – the very behaviours that are likely to lead to breakthrough solutions.
Diverse thinking and disagreement have a tendency to lead teams to make greater progress and come up with innovative solutions. Research shows that when a team is cognitively diverse, and everyone is willing to share their expertise and opinions, it will be smarter and solve problems faster*.
Patrick Lencioni asserts that ‘without conflict you can’t have true commitment’. He says that people need to ‘weigh in’ on a discussion in order to truly buy-in to the outcome and, provided they feel their viewpoint has been considered respectfully, they will commit to the team’s decision even if they don’t entirely agree with it.
*Alison Reynolds and David Lewis, Harvard Business Review, March 2017
Now we’re clear that productive conflict is an important characteristic of high performing teams, let’s look at how leaders can enable it. Here are our five key suggestions:
1. Remind your team that differences of opinion are a natural consequence of diversity. Therefore, they are very useful and, if debated constructively, will enable the team to make better decisions about what is right for your business.
2. Agree on a conflict culture that’s acceptable for everyone in the team and on the behaviours for engaging with one another. These are known as ‘conflict norms’ and, if you create them with input from your team, you make sure you have their buy-in. Examples might include: ‘don’t make it personal’, ‘everyone must participate’, ‘spirited debate is encouraged’ and so on.
3. 'Mine' for conflict and see it as an opportunity. This is about stepping in and asking the right questions to stimulate a quality of debate and keep the conversation constructive. By extracting more information and getting the team to focus on enquiry (asking questions to understand more) rather than advocacy (stating individual views), the best quality decisions will be reached within the time available. 4. Stick to the facts. Patrick Lencioni describes conflict as ‘the pursuit of truth’. So, to be sure that fiction isn’t present in the debate, there must be evidence to support the ‘why?’ This can take the form of facts, figures, research, results or timelines to ensure that the debate is evidence based. There is, however, a balance to be struck between team members having information to hand to support their arguments and delaying the discussion to get every single fact in place. 5. Lead by example and model appropriate conflict behaviour. Healthy conflict is never mean spirited, ego driven, competitive or about trying to ‘win’. The intention should always be to act within the best interests of the team and move the discussion closer to achieving the collective results. As leader you can steer the team towards a constructive conversation space, knowing that occasionally it may move towards being a ‘crucial conversation’ in which there are opposing opinions, strong emotions and high stakes, which will feel more like conflict. The aim is to avoid being either in ‘artificial harmony’ where no one is prepared to express a difference of opinion, or personal attack, which is never, ever productive.
Finally, to make sure the outcome of healthy conflict is positive, ensure that the team comes to a decision after the debate. Sometimes, after hearing the views of all team members, the leader will make the final call. It is then up to team members to genuinely commit to the decision and ensure its delivery.
If you would like help with creating a set of conflict norms for your team, do drop us an email.