Has Your Team Harnessed the Power of Healthy Conflict?
Workdays will be bearable, the thinking goes, if I can just maintain some basic harmony around here.
It’s pretty natural for business leaders to cringe at the thought of conflict. Management is tough enough without the specter of adding combat to the daily pressures. Yuck. Workdays will be bearable, the thinking goes, if I can just maintain some basic harmony around here.
But there is folly in making harmony a goal. Sure, it can feel right in a certain way. Meetings breeze by. People nod along. You hear short responses like “Yes” and Sure” and “You bet.”
But here is the truth: your people don’t actually agree with each other, at least not as much as they appear to. And often, they don’t agree with you, either. They’re just keeping their disagreement to themselves. That’s because what they are really trying to do is satisfy your need for harmony.
And if you’re honest with yourself, you probably know this already. We’re talking about smart, driven, dedicated people, just like you. You remember when you could see the fire burning in them, the fire you see less often now. Or maybe now, you see that fire only in one-on-one settings, where it periodically erupts in intense bursts.
The people on your team like each other. At least, they seem to, right? But in your heart of hearts, you can tell something is afoot. You can tell that they are bottling up their real beliefs, concerns and aspirations because they are afraid to rock your boat.
In the book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, Patrick Lencioni writes, “When team members do not openly debate and disagree about important ideas, they often turn to back-channel personal attacks, which are far nastier and more harmful than any heated argument over issues.”
Here is what’s your preoccupation with harmony is getting you.
> Disagreement is suppressed, so concerns go unnamed.
> Courageous conversations go un-had.
> Decisions are often made with half-information.
> Systemic ailments typically receive little more than band-aids.
> The most inventive solutions are left on the table for the competition to think up and deploy.
Your team might be plodding along well enough in this manner. But as the world gets crazier, chances are you need more. It’s time to harness positive, healthy conflict to ignite energy, wake up imaginations, and cultivate real trust. You’ll know you’ve done it when the below six dynamics are the rule within your team rather than the exception.
1. Fear of confrontation is checked. You are positively, absolutely certain that neither your nor anyone else’s distaste for confrontation is inadvertently chilling worthwhile debate. You’ve accepted the fact cultivating debate is actually your job.
The Good Fight Author Liane Davey says in this Knowledge at Wharton interview, “I always have to tell people that tension and conflict isn’t the antithesis of teamwork. It’s the purpose of it.” You know that smart people respectfully working through disagreement is when the best thinking happens. So you insist on it.
2. Vigorous debate occurs routinely and with grace. Your team members feel encouraged to stand their ground in defense of a well-informed point of view. They are not afraid to let passions show. They are even willing to argue. And they do it constructively. Anne Grady in Entrepreneur writes, “This is about learning to communicate assertively, and it starts with emotional awareness — being aware of emotional triggers or hot buttons that can set us off.” Your teammates focus on the other person’s point, never the other person. They watch their tone of voice. They don’t roll their eyes or shut down when things don’t go their way. And they don’t lose their cool.
3. You trust each other. Once arguments are made, you and your teammates let it all go. Members of your team are willing to defend their point because they are certain it won’t be held against them later. You don’t tolerate backbiting post-debate, and you never indulge in it yourself. There is a team-wide commitment to hugging it out, every time. As the leader, you forego artificial harmony in service to cultivating genuine trust.
4. There are fewer sacred cows. The presence of healthy conflict in your team leaves few places for sacred cows to hide. You and others are encouraged to say what you see. The list of off-limits topics is smaller — tough subjects simply get broached and addressed. Thus precious times and resources are focused on projects that are most consequential.
5. Decisions are more committed. When spirited debates end, you and your teammates go with whatever decision is made, whether or not things fell your way. Everyone enjoys the peace of mind that comes from having said your piece. And because healthy conflict leaves less room for complicity, you are confident there is real commitment when execution time arrives. You and your teammates’ views are laid bare, and your motives are transparent, so it’s easier to identify and address obstacles as they emerge.
6. You hold each other accountable. You and others are free and encouraged to hold each other to task. Questions like “You said you were going to do X, but I’m observing Y. What’s going on?” are exchanged, even among peers who don’t report to one another. Of course, such “accountability questions” convey complete confidence in the listener. They assume positive intent and never accuse. Teammates go out of your way to help each other.
Don’t let fear of confrontation stop your business from the routine practice of healthy conflict and the cultivation of trust that accompanies it. Harness it! If you do, you’re leaving far more on the table than you may realize.
Certified Executive Coach. I work with CEOs of company up to $500M to help them get the most of their human capital and to lead change.