No team has ever existed without conflict. Disputes, dissent, arguments, and debates are a natural and expected aspect to working with others. Yet, the skill many people managers (and team members) either struggle with or lack entirely is the ability to productively manage conflict. I especially lacked the skill early in my career and didn’t begin applying more productive skills until well into my 30’s after studying the topic. Even still, I screw it up sometimes.
One leader I worked with avoided conflict at all costs. He told me team conflict made him want to hide under his desk. Another leader described handling conflict as “having it out” and loved being able to prove her point. “There’s nothing better than seeing the look of defeat on the other person’s face.”
Sheer avoidance or a win/loss perspective are two of the least productive ways to navigate disagreements. Neither I nor these two leaders were intentionally trying to be bad managers, rather we did not have the perspective and tools to handle it more effectively.
Think about your own response to conflict, what impact does it have on you and your leadership?
The past three weeks, this blog has been addressing the Essential Components for High Performing Teams. We have covered the first three: Communication (asking questions and listening), Goals, and Clear Roles and Processes. The fourth essential component is Productive Conflict.
This post will not only address what productive conflict is, but it will also introduce you to a leader who handles conflict well. We will learn from her the importance of accepting conflict as a natural and important process for team performance as well understand the benefits of defining a process before the team ever disagrees. As we learned last week, teams that have clear processes, including those for handling conflict, will perform better than those who do not.
A few might be thinking “What is the difference between conflict and disagreement?” It depends on what you read and who you talk to. For some, disagreement is just a lack of approval and conflict is a dispute of needs or values. For others, they are essentially the same.
For sake of simplicity, the terms are used interchangeably in this article.
As you can imagine, productive conflict is a little self-explanatory. It is a disagreement that results in a better outcome than what was currently presented. What makes it unique, however, is the process and language used to get to that outcome.
Productive conflict remains focused on the overall goal and the work, it is generally task focused. Unproductive conflict tends to be relationship focused and thus creates personal friction.
An important differentiator is productive conflict does not equate to harmony. Productive conflict is often still uncomfortable, but the team is aligned to a common goal and has a process to follow to get through it.
Just like we discussed last week, many teamwork problems have to do with unclear roles and processes which cause stress. The team’s response to stress moves them to speak and interact with each other unproductively which results in interpersonal conflict. When those same teams also lack a process for handling the disagreements, they get stuck in a cycle of unproductive behaviors like complaining, gossip, blame, and denial.
A Model Team
Meet Irene. The calmest, coolest, level-headed leader at the organization. She is the person everyone goes to for advice on how to handle conflict. Her composure is notorious, and her process is often replicated and quoted by others in the company.
If you were to talk to Irene about her perspective on conflict, she would say, “It’s a process. When people disagree, it means we don’t have the best solution identified which means we can’t do our best work. I don’t see conflict as a bad thing. I see it as a turning point to something potentially great.”
Anytime there is a debate or disagreement, Irene’s first step is to call a time-out and ask “What is our goal here? What are we trying to accomplish?”
The interruption is helpful in two ways. It first stops the progression of emotion and second, forces the team to take a breath and think. More importantly, stop talking. Once people start to speak up about goals, Irene stands up and takes notes. She writes on a flipchart or whiteboard in the room. She ensures that each member of the team has an opportunity to speak and explores their perspectives with interest. This action of inquiring about intent and motivations unearths new information.
Once Irene has the team aligned on a common goal, she leads them to brainstorm new options. Certainly, the options that were in debate are considered, but Irene presses for more. Sometimes, Irene offers ideas she does not support just to spark new thinking. Inevitably, once multiple options are created, the team sees the problem in a new way.
Occasionally, the solution emerges without further debate but if it doesn’t, Irene asks “Are we ready?” This is the standard phrase she uses to check-in if the team is ready to move on or keep generating options.
If the team says no, they are not ready, they continue to brainstorm. If they say yes, they vote by a show of hands indicating which option would be taken forward.
Does Irene’s process for handling team conflict sound too good to be true? Maybe, but maybe not. Here’s why…
Irene leads her team to accept conflict as a natural and productive process of teamwork. Working together is sometimes hard and tension will come up. She speaks openly of this perspective and discusses why conflict leads the team to better results. She discusses this not only in large-group team meetings but also in one-on-one conversations. It is important to her that the team know conflict is a good thing. Her experience has shown her that disagreements lead to better results.
Also, Irene and her team identified this process for addressing disagreements before they were ever disagreeing. With level heads and calm perspectives, they discussed and agreed upon an approach. More importantly, they determined as a team how they would make decisions while in conflict. This is where they agreed to the standard language of “Are we ready?” after brainstorming options and agreeing to voting. The team also documented this process, made it readily available to all, and evaluated it after it’s first use. This evaluation resulted in revisions that improved the process over time.
Here are the key points to Irene’s approach:
Discuss as a team and individually, that conflict (and subsequent tension and frustration) is a productive and natural aspect of teamwork. Reassure the team that it is ok to disagree.
Identify a process the team will take to resolve disagreements, such as aligning to a goal, generating multiple options, and identifying a way to decide
Document the process and make it available to the team so that it is accessible when needed.
Evaluate the effectiveness of the process and revise as needed.
It all comes together
Certainly, there this no silver bullet to conflict resolution. There are so many variables. We did not address what to do when emotions are stronger than the process; how to speak up when you disagree with your boss; or when competition for power is more important than performance.
Disagreement is complex and we will get to all those topics in future posts. If you find yourself in one of those scenarios, here are some articles for guidance:
Here is what I have seen routinely in high performing teams: Those that have clear goals for their work as well as defined roles and processes and communicate with each other with curiosity, have far less unproductive conflict. All the components come together. Teams that excel also experience frustration, tension, and plenty of differing opinions. However, the disagreement doesn’t derail their performance. It enhances it.
Next week is the final week of the series, we will address the importance of feedback.
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Until next time!
Amy Drader is a management consultant and credentialed coach with over 20 years’ experience. She knows first-hand the joys and challenges of leadership and is dedicated to helping managers and teams advance their performance. She is the owner of Growth Partners Consulting, a boutique leadership and team development consulting firm.