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How your teams need to get good at conflict

Here’s an interesting scenario for you.  You’re holding an executive team meeting.  Two of the members start to argue.  They’ve got completely different views on how something should be handled.  What do you and the rest of the team do?

Does someone crack a joke to try and diffuse the tension?  Or does the whole room go silent as everyone looks at their shuffling feet?  Maybe you, as CEO, jump in to try and mediate?  All of these reactions are unhelpful.  If you’re wanting to build a high functioning, cohesive team, you need to allow conflict. More, you need to mine for it.

The genesis of this comes from Patrick Lencioni’s brilliant work on ‘The Five Dysfunctions of a Team’.  He showed how fear of conflict was built on an absence of vulnerability-based trust.  And without conflict, you get fake harmony, lack of commitment and avoidance of accountability. 

We’ve written many times before on how to build psychological safety in an organisation and this is fundamental to trust.  It’s important to remember that we’ve been trained through school and most work environments to avoid conflict. So teams need to work on it – getting themselves to a point where they can disagree and commit.  The only way they’ll do this is through deliberate practice. 

Harnessing the power of the team

Teams come together to make things happen. Recently I saw a great piece of research looking at the cost of when a team works on something versus individuals.  The study looked at baseline costs and the types of tasks that make the benefit of a team worth more than the cost.  Unsurprisingly, even on lower or medium-level tasks, two heads were better than one.  The benefits exponentially outweighed the costs.  Nine times out of ten, a team will always be a better bet. 

By getting good at conflict, you’re trying to harness the power of your team.  You’re encouraging them to come together and make the team accountable so that your managers can become coaches.  They need clarity on what they’re trying to do and their individual and collective objectives.  And if they disagree, they need to feel confident voicing their objections, discussing them and then agreeing collectively on an outcome. 

Not taking it personally

To feel confident to speak up and engage in conflict, there need to be high levels of vulnerability-based trust in the team.  Otherwise, the danger is that conflict is avoided or becomes personal.  If necessary, people should feel safe enough to get heated. Even shout and scream if they need to.  There should be no shying away from strong feelings and emotions.  

As a team, there needs to be a mutual understanding that it’s ok to have a philosophical difference and to fight like hell to defend it.  But the fact that they are disagreeing is not personal.  This is important.  If teams are going to exercise their superpower of teaming, they need to agree to disagree, come up with the right answer, do the right work and hold each other accountable for it.

Admitting that you’re wrong

Humans don’t like to fail.  I was reminded of this when I was reading Clayton Christensen’s book ‘The Innovator’s Solution’ this week. He looks at why 65% of all projects are doomed. The reason?  People do the easy thing and not the hard thing.  Always.  Because they don’t want to fail.  It’s hard-wired into us.  This is compounded if your organisation has low levels of psychological safety.  (I’ve got Amy Edmondson on our Melting Pot podcast in a few weeks, talking about exactly this).  Without that feeling of safety, people don’t feel able to make mistakes, ask for help or own up if something goes wrong.

In this environment, when conflict arises, people will dig their heels in. They don’t want to be persuaded that they’re wrong.  They stick to their opinions and don’t go looking for things that might change their minds.  I love Alan Weiss’ quote, ‘I’m constantly surprised by how stupid I was two weeks ago’. It’s something I do all the time.  I find things out and think, ‘I wish I’d known that years ago’.  Isn’t that the nature of being human?  We’re constantly learning.  So you need to encourage your teams to realise there’s no shame in being wrong or changing their minds.

A high performing team will have this level of self-awareness.  Instead of bitching, moaning and whining in private, they’ll accept their differences and go along with what the team decides.  Disagreeing in private is fine, but in public, they need to present a united front.  Look at the Government.  When you read the historical cabinet papers, you realise how much disagreement and argument took place behind the scenes.  But in public, there’s an understanding that consensus is needed.

Practising conflict

Make sure your team has as many opportunities to build its conflict muscle as possible.  Here’s a great example.  We had a client with us last week and one of the things that came up was whether you should still wear a mask or not. Thorny, controversial topic here, guaranteed to cause dissent! 

I decided to use this as an opportunity to work on conflict.  I’m against masks now it is no longer mandated. I gave my view. Someone else (Len) said we should all be wearing them as it was ‘the right thing to do’.  You could feel the tension rise in the room. There was a classic reaction amongst the rest of the team.  Earlier, we’d audited everybody on their conflict style.  Some of them rarely engaged in deep conflict.  These were the people who went quiet. 

Meanwhile, Len and I started having a heated philosophical debate.  We acknowledged this and I pointed out that he felt he was right and, equally strongly, I felt I was right. Frankly, it didn’t really matter one way or the other, but I had a question for him.  ‘What data would you need to see for you to be prepared to change your mind?’  Len stopped for a moment to think.  ‘I’d need Chris Whitty to tell me that masks aren’t important.’  He wasn’t really saying this, but what he was saying was that he was open to negotiation. 

‘OK’, I replied. ‘I don’t have data from Chris Whitty, but what if I showed you data from the Head of the CDC in America?’ Len said he would be interested to see that.  Suddenly we were in a negotiation that could end up in us changing our point of view.   

This is an example of healthy conflict.  What you want to avoid is for the argument to get so out of hand that the introverts shrink away and the protagonists stop listening. As they shout louder and louder, their curiosity goes to zero as they advocate for their position.  At some point, the conflict moves from debating a philosophical difference to something personal.  They might start saying, ‘You always do that’.  Or, ‘You’re such an idiot’.  They bring in irrelevant grievances and frustration builds even further.  Instead, counsel your team to take a breath, pause and come back to facts and data. 

Belief versus opinion

It’s helpful to recognise the difference between belief and opinion.  If you’re questioning something that the other person fundamentally believes, there’s nothing you can do to change their mind.  Whether it’s a flat-earthist, Father Christmas, The Tooth Fairy – if they believe in a myth, then they’ve already chosen to ignore the evidence. 

When you’re discussing a philosophical difference and the topic is something the person fundamentally believes, they are genuinely entitled to their opinion and I wouldn’t try and change it.  But if it’s about something to do with running your business, then someone isn’t entitled to their opinion if they’re not open to changing their mind when presented with evidence or data.  Their ‘opinion’ is irrelevant.

Remember, in practising conflict, you’re not looking for consensus.  High performing teams don’t run on consensus.  They disagree and commit.  This means not everyone agrees. But, crucially, people feel they’ve been heard and the team can make a decision that they can stick with. 

Ensuring commitment to a shared decision

If you constantly avoid conflict, you won’t know that people disagreed with a decision.  It’s important to have this awareness.  Here’s an absolute classic.  One of our clients agreed a sales target with their team a few months ago.  Or they thought they did. A month later, one of the team said, ‘But I didn’t agree with that target – I said it at the time’.  No one in the room remembered hearing this and maybe he wasn’t given the opportunity to voice his concerns.  And as a result, he hadn’t committed to the target.

This happens all the time.  So you need to make it crystal clear.  Go around the room and get everyone to publically commit to the decision you’ve made.  Ask each of them individually, ‘Do you agree?’.  If Bob says no, he needs to be open about this but agree to commit to the shared decision.  People don’t overtly sabotage but they do sabotage by omission.  If they’re not committed to the plan then, when the wheels come off, they’ll say, ‘Well I knew that wasn’t going to work’.  This behaviour is infuriating and undermines team performance.

Mining for conflict

Recognise that instead of being avoided, conflict is a behaviour that should be actively encouraged in your business.  Go mining for conflict.  Take a leaf out of Amazon’s book and circulate data and documentation that’s likely to provoke conflict before a meeting.  This gives the people who like to prepare some time to do this.  When the meeting begins, go around the room and get everyone to say what they think the person presenting the data should do.  That person can then go away and decide whether they’re going to change the plan in any way. 

Another great tool is pre-mortems. Before any big initiative, get every member of the team to project forwards and think of two or three reasons why it might not work.  This means everyone’s being critical, not just one person.  And it enables the person with strong, negative views to say what they really think. 

Finally, you could try red teaming where you split your team in half, with one group trying to pitch a plan and the other half taking it apart.  If you do this for every initiative, it becomes an accepted behaviour and people get used to disagreement.   By taking a deliberate approach and actively encouraging conflict, you’ll strengthen your team and see much higher levels of accountability. 



Written by business growth coach Dominic Monkhouse. Find out more about his work here. Read his book, ‘F**k Plan B’ here

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