Canadians’ have an image of politeness and don’t usually like words like ‘conflict.
In fact, we can be pretty smug about our politeness. Along with maple syrup, hockey and wood, smugness is our #1 export.
For so many people, the idea of conflict seems to imply something negative, even harsh. “Why not ‘discussion’ or ‘debate’ or ‘disagreement’?” Or even worse, ‘Consensus.’
But I like the honesty and forthrightness of the word ‘conflict.’ I suppose that’s why I think it’s the right word.
In the Five Dysfunctions of a Team, Patrick Lencioni wrote that there is no way to avoid being uncomfortable when it comes to building a truly cohesive team.
And yet, it is so tempting to try. “Let’s just agree to disagree.” “Let’s take that off-line.” “I think we agree more than we disagree.” It is astounding to me the lengths many leaders will go to avoid that awkward moment when two people realize that they “passionately disagree” (a.k.a. engage in conflict) about something vital.
No matter how well those people know one another and how many times they have had those moments, it will ALWAYS be uncomfortable.
I use the word conflict intentionally to prepare people for the full challenge that it presents. Calling it discussion or debate or simple disagreement tempts them to strive to avoid the raw and challenging reality that conflict entails.
So, the next time you’re in a meeting, and you find yourself trying to avoid one of those uncomfortable moments, stop and let everyone know that you’re going to overcome your fears and engage in actual conflict and that you’re doing so for the good of the team.
It will diffuse the inevitable tension that tempts everyone to back off and permit them to acknowledge their fears.
The Case for Conflict
If you follow Lencioni’s book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, they have a completely different view on the importance of workplace conflict — they actively advocate for it. For many, the confusion may lie in interpreting the actual word ‘conflict’ rather than the intent or action.
Essentially, great teams have ‘healthy ideological conflict’ that requires productive debate around ideas and concepts, not people. Great teams do not hold back. They pursue difficult conversations by getting all the facts on the table for the sake of making informed, better decisions.
What exactly is at stake when a team does not engage in healthy conflict? Here are four reasons:
- Wasted Time: Revisiting unresolved conversations meeting after meeting not only drives people crazy, it wastes time. Healthy teams roll up their sleeves, get uncomfortable, attack issues head-on, and ultimately make informed decisions.
- Poor Decision Making: If all the facts are not on the table and team members have not weighed in on a topic, critical information could be missing resulting in poor decisions.
- Wasted Money: Wasted resources that result from uninformed decisions are commonplace. Spending time up-front debating an issue will ultimately translate to the bottom line.
- Lack of Buy-In: Team members are less likely to buy into a decision if their opinion was not considered and factored into the process; thereby, affecting employee commitment.
To effectively make conflict a core part of a team’s culture, establish “conflict norms.” These are the expectations the team establishes and commits to engage in healthy conflict during team discussions.
Here are several conflict norms that work:
- Silence Equals Disagreement — One of the goals should be full participation. When team members withhold their opinion, it ultimately hurts the outcome of the discussion. We often mistake silence as support. That’s not appropriate. Often, people are silent because they disagree but are too uncomfortable to share openly. A team that embraces the conflict norm of Silence Equals Disagreement does not allow team members to sit in silence at team meetings.
- Do You Support? — At the end of a discussion, ask the team, “Do you support this direction?” Asks each team member where they specifically stand on the topic. Each team member gives their opinion regardless of their standing. Then listen and consider each opinion before moving forward with a decision.
- End the ‘Meeting-After-The-Meeting’ — Teams need to stop the post-meeting that is commonly referred to as the ‘meeting-after-the-meeting.’ I would encourage the team leader to repeat the following at the end of a team meeting: “If anyone is thinking of coming to me or anyone else on the team to rehash today’s topics, it’s not an option, so state it now.” After the shock wears off, your team will understand their only outlet is when the entire team is together.
- Debate Trumps Agenda — Teams should not consider a meeting agenda set in stone. While agendas are an important guidance tool, take the time to have a good debate about critical issues rather than moving on for the sake of covering all the agenda items. Allowing this helps generate healthy conflict on a team because team members will be assured that crucial topics will be thoroughly discussed.
- Offline Alert — During a team meeting, a substantial red flag occurs when someone says, “Let’s take that off-line.” This typically occurs because the leader doesn’t want the conversation to unfold before the entire team. In the majority of situations, it is perfectly appropriate to air the issue among the whole team. Confronting a difficult topic in the group removes ambiguity about the situation, and everyone understands its resolution.
Smugness may be fine when it comes to National Pride and politeness, but it has no place in leadership.
But leaders need to embrace the power of conflict and set the stage for engaging in healthy debate.
Teams that use conflict effectively will drive toward better decisions, develop strong team commitment, and ultimately results.