Is absence of conflict killing your team?

Conflict is healthy.

Decisions taken from a set of alternatives are measurably better than plans which emerge from a single solution.

Generating, developing and choosing between options is better when carried out by a group with diverse – but relevant – skills and experience. So if you have a strong, diverse team formed from capable people, it follows that differences of perspective and experience will result in disagreement. And holding this disagreement – indeed, nurturing it – generating passionate, unfiltered debate – is a key route to genuinely creative and innovative problem-solving.

Teams without conflict cannot become high-performing. It’s as simple as that. Here are five conflict-killers, and their remedies:

1. Absence of trust

If you’re frightened about the consequences of opening your mouth, why would you speak up? Trust needs to be firmly established and demonstrated before team members will feel confident enough to really say what they feel. More on trust here and here.

If trust is low in your team, working to build it must be your top priority.

2. HIPPOs

If the team knows that the Highest-Paid Person’s Opinion is the one which will dominate, why bother with the debate? Even if the most senior person in the room is the most experienced, most capable or most intelligent, I have never been in a situation whether they are more experienced, capable or intelligent than everyone else put together. I did witness one occasion when a group of around twenty experienced people generated many good ideas on a series of flip-charts as part of a brain-storming session. Before the group could move on to assess, filter and develop the most promising ideas collaboratively, the most senior person present took a red marker pen and silently crossed out the ones he didn’t like. Incredible.

If you’re the boss, act with humility and turn your self-awareness dial to 11. If you’re not the boss, and this happens, point out the effect of the boss’s behaviour to them and ask them to stop.

3. Negativity and criticism

In debate, we’re looking for critique, not criticism. We’re seeking insight to build on ideas, not to shoot them down. But we all know that person – often, a very intelligent individual – who is quick to say why something can’t be done, who attacks people as well as ideas. In the moment, their observations might be correct. But their behaviour takes the energy from the discussion and inhibits collaboration.

If this is you, ask colleagues to call you on your behaviour. Instead, try “Yes, and…

4. Unease with conflict

“We’re a great team. Everyone gets on so well. We never argue.”

No, you’re not a great team. A great team’s members can go toe-to-toe and argue with each other, passionately – without losing respect for each other, without falling out with each other and with an ability to leave the emotion behind at the end of the discussion. A group of people who don’t do this may be brilliant friends, but a brilliant team is comfortable with disagreement.

Make it OK to disagree. Demonstrate respect for each other throughout. Work hard to build bridges if they’ve become damaged in the conflict. Go for a drink afterwards.

5. Lack of facilitation

Somebody has to go first. Somebody has to mine for dissent, and bring the issues to the table. Somebody has to bring that one person who’s said nothing for the last fifteen minutes back into the discussion. Somebody has to say and what do you think?

Really experienced teams do this themselves, automatically. For everyone else, you need facilitation. Your circumstances will dictate whether this is the team leader, a role which rotates through team members, or provided externally.

For more on conflict, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable by Patrick Lencioni is a great read. And if you’d like some help building trust, managing healthy conflict and boosting team performance in your organisation, please get in touch.