Conflict is a bad thing for a team, right? No, not right. Quite wrong actually.
Show me a team where everyone always agrees and I’ll show you a team that’s falling a long way short of its potential.
When teams avoid conflict these are some of the results:
- Growth and improvement will be limited, as team members are reluctant to challenge the status quo and raise new ideas.
- Poor decisions will be made, as team members operate from a default of agreement and will let decisions pass without adequate questioning and testing.
- Relationships will be unsatisfying and shallow, as people hold back their true feelings and don’t reveal their full selves.
- Areas of potential conflict will simmer away under the surface and will be very large and messy when they eventually come into the open.
Of course, not all conflict is favourable. Shouting, intimidation, insults and belittling people does real harm and this form of conflict, or fighting should never be tolerated. On the other hand, there’s a way to address conflict which is very favourable. This is characterised by free expression of differing opinions, and mutual respect. I call it positive conflict.
So … the question is what can teams do to foster the kind of positive conflict that can make team performance great?
Here are some things to try:
Encourage team members to ask plenty of questions – questions to understand things better, questions to check how things are going and questions to explore new approaches.
Reward and recognise team results more than individual results. This will encourage collaboration and will reduce unhelpful competition among team members.
Practice using “we” rather than “you/I” language. For example, instead of asking “what are you going to do about this?” it would be better to ask “how can we work together to resolve this?”
Ensure that the team has a shared vision that all team members believe in, and use this as a guiding light during debates and disagreements.
Express differences of opinion in a positive manner. For example, instead of saying “that’s never going to work … we need to do this” you could try “that’s a good approach … I also think there’s something else we could try…”.
Invite disagreement and divergent opinions. For example say “that’s what I think might work but I know there are bound to be different options – what other ideas do we all have?”
Draw out new, left-field ideas rather than shutting them down. While some of these ideas may seem far-fetched and many may not be good options these are where the most significant, groundbreaking ideas come from.
Establish good patterns of positive conflict on some small, less important issues. This way when big issues come up the team will have good positive conflict habits in place which will enable great results without relationship damage
If you give some of these ideas a go your team will most likely develop a healthier relationship with conflict and this is likely to lead to significantly improved performance.
“Conflict is the beginning of consciousness”
– Esther Harding –