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Why healthy conflict is a good thing (and how to build it in your team)

Imagine this. You’re in an Executive Team meeting. The discussion turns into a controversial decision. You go around the room, and there’s unanimous agreement. No dissenting voices at all. Satisfied with this consensus, you leave the room and congratulate yourself on a productive meeting.  

Except it isn’t productive. Because as soon as you leave, the muttering starts. Some of the team members have no intention of abiding by the decision.

If this is a familiar story, be warned. Patrick Lencioni calls it ‘artificial harmony’, and it has no place in a high-performing team. It’s toxic and will hold your business back. If you suspect this is happening in your team, there are several things to work on. Most important is building your ‘healthy conflict’ muscle. Like any muscle, it must be regularly exercised and built up slowly. With time, it will strengthen and become more efficient. And your team will perform better as a result.

    Disagree and commit

    I’ve recently been in New York, coaching a newly formed leadership team. One of the things I observed was they needed to disagree more. Jeff Bezos calls it ‘disagree and commit’. In the British democratic system, it’s called Cabinet Government. The idea is that, behind closed doors, the leadership team can have frank, even heated debates. Arguments that are emotionally charged where everything is said and nothing unsaid. Everything is out on the table. Even though there’s disagreement, the team then commits to a course of action. 

    Do this, and you get rid of triangulation. Those muttered conversations in the corridor or on instant messenger are less likely. In the American team, people were nervous about conflict because they were all new. As they talked, a couple disagreed, and the temperature went up. Unsure whether to carry on, they hesitated. I immediately said, ‘Excellent – let’s have more of that. Keep going.’

    Building psychological safety

    To disagree with each other, there needs to be psychological safety in the team’s culture. This is vital. So vital that I’ve devoted entire blogs to the topic. Your team members must feel able to speak their minds without fear of judgement. They need to feel supported. And there needs to be respect.

    We’ve previously worked with a client who had issues in this area. In the pre-session 1:1s with the team, many said they felt the leadership were bullies. If they were criticised in any way, they went on the offensive. Meetings were aggressive and confrontational, so the rest of the team stopped disagreeing with these individuals. And we saw that in some of the sessions we ran. 

    Having worked through this over several years, the whole team has drawn up a behavioural charter. This makes holding people to account much easier. And some of the worst offenders have left the team entirely. 

    Audit conflict in your team

    If your team finds it difficult to disagree and commit, start with a conflict audit. Draw a graph for each team member with two axes – the horizontal axis for aggression and the vertical for frequency. Pass these graphs around the room. Get all team members to indicate where they think this person sits on the graph. The people perceived to be most aggressive most often will be on the top right, and those who are never aggressive bottom left. Then give each team member their graph to absorb.

    This is an excellent way of giving feedback on where the team thinks you show up. You’ll often have no awareness that you’re perceived this way. And it gives you something to work on. The overly aggressive people tone down their behaviour, and the passive people must become more forceful.

    Using ‘Stop, Start, Continue’

    You want all team members to feel they can comment about their peers’ performance. Yes, these conversations are hard. But they need to be had.

    This is where it gets uncomfortable. When I hit this point with a team, I use ‘Stop, Start, Continue’ to navigate their discomfort. I ask them, ‘In the context of making this a high-performing team, what behaviours do you bring that the rest of the team want you to stop, start, and continue doing?’ 

    It gives me a sense of who the truth tellers are in the team. These people will always tell you if you have spinach in your teeth or your flies are undone. I’m always in awe of these people. How do they do it? When I was MD at Peer 1, a couple of colleagues had this innate ability to cut through the crap and get straight to it. This can be useful!

    Practising healthy conflict

    There are other tools you can use to practice healthy conflict. I like the circles of trust exercise where you draw three concentric circles. Put yourself in the centre with any other team members you trust. In the second circle, put people you neither trust nor distrust. And in the outer circle, those who you actively distrust. I get the whole team to do this and then ask them to share it. If looks could kill, I would be dead on the spot! People hate doing this. They feel betrayed.

    But I’m encouraging them to have a difficult conversation in a controlled environment. I’m trying to surface the undercurrents of disquiet in the team so they can be confronted and dealt with. You’ll only do this by forcing people to ‘have it out’ face to face.

    Another great way is to get each team member to write down the pair in the room with the weakest working relationship. Often, one person gets named at least 50% of the time. And they’re unaware that people think they’re the weakest link. There is likely zero communication in this weak relationship. Now they have something to work with. Create an OKR to ensure these two people can work together with measurable actions to improve their relationship. 

    Agree on a behavioural charter

    Once you’ve identified the areas the team needs to work on to build its conflict muscle, consider introducing a behavioural framework. This can be transformational. It will codify your culture, clarifying the core values you want it to represent. If you can work out what you believe in, some behaviours will underpin these things.

    Jim Collins’ ‘Mission to Mars’ exercise is valuable here. You identify the heroes from your company that you’d send to Mars. They need to represent the DNA of your organisation. Their behaviour should embody the very best of your business. If your team agrees, you can define the behaviours you value.  

    Also helpful are the ‘Saboteur’ and ‘Stinky Fish’ exercises. These will get the whole team to agree on the negative behaviours you’re trying to eliminate. Once you have a behavioural framework, it can guide everything you do – hiring, firing, promoting and rewarding. And it will hold the whole team to account. 

    Accountability and trust

    All of this is predicated on there being trust within the team. Various definitions and models of trust exist, but one of the best known is the three-legged stool of ‘Character, Competence and Communication’. All three of these need to be present for someone to trust you. You may like someone, but if you don’t think they’re up to the job, there’s no respect. And equally, you’re less likely to trust someone who rubs you up the wrong way. 

    If you chat all the time, get on well and respect each other’s competence, you can build on this mutual respect. Because you trust them, you want to help them be even better at their job, and you are both more likely to push each other to raise the bar. Unfortunately, the opposite is more common. ‘I think you’re a bit shit. You may or may not know this. But I’m not going to do anything about it. I will just complain to the boss because I don’t think it’s my place to help you get better.’ 

    Too often, the leadership team doesn’t think of itself as a team. Instead, its members look through the lens of their silo, with the CEO acting as referee. If yours is a hub-and-spoke business like this, with everything revolving around you as CEO, it can be incredibly tiring.  

    If you don’t have difficult conversations, the team members will never hold each other to account. So start flexing that healthy conflict muscle regularly. This is how you build a high-performing team.

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    Written by business growth coach Dominic Monkhouse. Find out more about his work here. Read his new book, ‘Mind Your F**king Business’ here.

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