Avoiding Team Conflict Can Be a Grave Mistake: Four Strategies For Healthy Team Conflict
Credit: FIZKES | ISTOCKPHOTO
By Dana Brownlee
One of the biggest mistakes leaders make is avoiding team conflict. Yes, conflict may feel uncomfortable, but that tension is often a very natural if not necessary part of real progress and team bonding. A great analogy is the process of dating. When we hear about some couple that had a whirlwind two week romance, then jetted to Las Vegas to get married because they were so “in love,” we see red flags and don’t hold out much hope for a permanent union. Why not? Partially because they got married while still in the honeymoon phase and hadn’t yet had a chance to work through the natural bumps in the road that relationships bring – disagreements about the housework, meddling parents, finances, the toilet seat, how to load the dishwasher, etc. Whether large or small, these conflicts aren’t to be avoided – instead, they’re a necessary part of the relationship maturing. Indeed, working through those conflicts is part of the glue that ultimately solidifies the relationship.
Teams are the same way! When teams naively avoid all conflict, they’re actually stunting their own growth and maturity. This conflict avoidance can easily keep them stuck in the “honeymoon phase” of teaming which might feel good on the surface but typically limits results, stunts innovation, and keeps relationships shallow. As Chris Rock famously said “When you first start dating someone, you’re not really dating them. You’re dating their representative!” Similarly in the workplace, when you’re not getting to know the real person and only dealing with their representative, developing real trust and intimacy within the team is nearly impossible.
Tuckman’s stages of group development outline five stages that groups progress through as they develop into a high performing team (although not all teams progress all the way through). Let’s take a simple relatable workplace example to illustrate what these steps might look like. Imagine Jill is a newer member of a team and she’s attending her first project meeting with her new team when the team leader leans over and asks her if she’d mind taking the meeting notes. This graphic shows how her dialogue might evolve over the course of the team’s development over the next several months.
Unfortunately, we’re conditioned to think of conflict as inherently bad. Yes, if the project status meeting turns into a WWE brawl, that’s a major problem, but that’s dysfunctional conflict. Dysfunctional conflict is often characterized by personal attacks while functional conflict is typically rooted in honest disagreements about work decisions (often resulting from different perspectives or priorities). Functional conflict is the hidden gem that propels the team toward the critical Norming phase. In many ways functional conflict is the team’s bridge from fake cohesion to true relationship building and avoiding this natural step merely keeps the team stuck in the immature Forming Stage. The Forming Stage doesn’t provide the natural tension that leads to not just trust but also improved decisions, innovative ideas, and ultimately better business results. One of the best indicators of the inherent value and benefit that conflict provides is the fact that high performing teams continue to have periodic conflict. While they still have conflict, they operate with such trust and respect that the conflict rarely threatens the underlying relationships, and the conflicts are typically healthy and well managed.
Admittedly, the line between healthy conflict and unhealthy conflict can be a slippery slope so here are some tips for encouraging healthy team conflict.
1. Define decision making processes and criteria before decisions actually need to be made
It’s natural for individuals to have different perspectives and priorities so certain decisions will invariably generate tension and conflict. A great way to minimize this is establishing the decision making criteria in a separate discussion well before actual decisions need to be made. For example, define the criteria for deciding how each team’s year end bonus dollars will be allocated in June, then in December you’ll likely have a much easier process. Yes, individuals will likely still lobby for their preferred project or person, but having previously defined criteria should help guide and manage the conflict.
2. Develop a team culture that encourages constructive questioning/push back
One reason why conflict degenerates is that individuals often hold back or bottle up their honest thoughts and concerns, and unfortunately when they later ultimately express their views or concerns, their tone is much more hostile and/or aggressive. Avoid this by encouraging team members to actively question, speak up or raise alternate ideas as soon as they have them. One of my teams developed a practice of assigning someone to play devil’s advocate during team meetings, and their job was to provide constructive push back/questioning, etc. to ensure that ideas were thoroughly vetted. This simple technique started to infuse a culture of constructive questioning within the team.
3. Establish healthy disagreement etiquette
Actively discuss and role model healthy disagreement best practices like active listening, repeating the other person’s point of view before contradicting it, or looking for opportunities of agreement amidst disagreement. One team I worked with years ago maintained the ground rule “Seek first to understand, then to be understood,” and this statement posted in the meeting room became a constant reminder of the importance of truly trying to understand the other person’s point of view before formulating your rebuttal. Indeed, there is a difference between listening and waiting to talk, and discussions often become heated when parties are focused on their rebuttal instead of actively listening.
4. Create a healthy conflict atmosphere
Atmosphere can have a significant impact on team members’ mood and demeanor. Simple choices like including food in the meeting, meeting at an offsite location, or even suggesting a ground rule that the group continue discussions standing if the conversation becomes protracted can ward off tense situations that can lead to unhealthy conflict. Years ago, a participant in one of my workshops told me his group had gotten into a heated discussion, and the project manager decided to suspend the conversation and continue the meeting across the street on the benches of a Bruster’s Ice Cream shop. Somehow while they continued the same discussions over banana splits, tension seemed to lessen, spirits lifted, and creativity began to flow in a different way. He concluded that taking the meeting across the street was one of his best leadership moves.
One of the most difficult challenges a leader faces is managing team conflict. A key to success is remembering that conflict is not the enemy. Conflict signifies a willingness to acknowledge differences and work towards better solutions. The most ground breaking innovations have been the result of much conflict, healthy conflict. Instead of avoiding team conflict, embrace it, harness it, and look forward to where it can take your team.