Healthy conflict around strategy and ideas is not only good for a team, it’s necessary for growth.
By Matt Monge, Director of Education and Training, Fort Campbell Federal Credit Union
If you’re anything like me, the words “productive” and “conflict” don’t seem like they should even be in the same sentence, unless, of course, that sentence reads something like: “Conflict
is not productive
.” I would argue, however, that productive conflict is a necessity if any group wants to grow. Healthy conflict around strategy and ideas is not only good for a team, it’s necessary. This idea is certainly not original with me (Patrick Lencioni, for example, does a wonderful job with this in “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team”), but I’m convinced it doesn’t get enough air time, and I’m further convinced that too many teams and organizations have bought into the myth that all conflict is bad.
What I’m Not Saying
It’s important to note that I’m not at all advocating interpersonal, mean-spirited conflict. Rather, it’s ideological conflict that’s so needed within teams and groups. Groups of professionals who engage in conflict of this nature are able to discuss and resolve issues much quicker than those who might dance around the tough topics, sugarcoat answers, hold back objections or critiques, and just nod in agreement with everything that’s said.
Watch for Red Flags
In truth, it ought to be a red flag if a team can sit in meetings together discussing important things without engaging in robust and passionate discussion about those things. If teams can discuss things without any dissent or diverging opinions being aired, they can be almost certain things are being left unsaid or unexplored. Here are some other red flags to watch for; these things point to the possibility that your team isn’t engaging in healthy conflict to the degree it could or should be.
Leaders, It’s on You
No one questions anything. Conflict essentially is considered off-limits.
There is an environment in place where politics and gossip thrive. More conversation about ideas and strategy happens away from the team than with it. Think of it this way: Your team willdiscuss the vision and strategy of the team; it’s just a matter of where it’s going to happen. Encourage healthy conflict, and you’ll be able to manage and push those conversations in a positive and helpful direction.
Everyone has well-defined calf muscles.This happens as a result of tiptoeing too much. Team members spend more time and effort trying to avoid conflict than they do trying to come up with proactive, innovative ideas.
This is an especially important point to grasp if you are in any sort of leadership role within your group, whether that’s a team, department, small business, or large corporation. We have to understand that we need our teams to work and think through our ideas. As humans, we’re nowhere near perfect, so we need to be aware (sometimes painfully aware) of the fact that not all of the ideas we have or will come up with are good ones. We must depend on our teams to think through ideas, critique them, and offer alternatives. It’s only after that sort of exercise that we can move forward together, confident we’ve explored the options we could think of and selected the best one, even if it’s not the one that we, as their leaders, were advocating.
This sort of healthy, productive conflict does not happen automatically. It must be worked at and practiced. You may even want to consider calling someone in from the outside to sit in on a couple strategic meetings and help you identify when and where these discussions should be taking place, as well as what those discussions might sound like. If your team currently doesn’t engage in ideological conflict, it’s going to be a lot like learning how to ride a bike all over again at first. It likely will feel uncomfortable and slightly awkward, but your team needs to persevere through that stage so you can begin to really reap the benefits of cultivating that type of engaged and creative culture.
What Does that Look Like?
Whether you’re the leader of a team or a training and development professional helping others learn how to better engage in healthy conflict, here are a few tips:
Look for disagreements.And when you find them, point them out. Sometimes groups are so used to overlooking them that they forget what a disagreement actually looks like.
Coach in the moment.When you’re in a meeting, and you see team members retreat from an appropriate and necessary discussion, coach them in real time. It’s almost like you’re giving them permission to enter the fray. Help them understand that not only is it OK for them to engage in the discussion, it’s actually really important to the team that they do.
) Engage in role play.Just like anything else, this takes practice. So set up some training sessions during which team members can role play. Give them topics, and even assign them “sides” of a discussion if necessary. Then coach them through the discussion. This is a great opportunity for a group to participate, as well. Have the group observe two individuals engage in the role play, and then have a group discussion following the role play during which the others can point out what went well and what could have gone better.
As that culture begins to take hold, you’ll notice that you’ll start getting more ideas out of your team, and that your own ideas will be sharpened and enhanced (and perhaps occasionally discarded!) through honest and passionate discussion with your team. You’ll be able to move forward more confidently, knowing your ideas have been thoroughly dissected and discussed. You’ll be exposed to more creative ideas, allowing you to think outside the box regularly. All in all, the benefits of embracing this kind of passionate, creative, team culture can be substantial. Your teams will be more efficient, more engaged, more passionate, more creative, and more unified.
Matt Monge is the director of Education and Training at Fort Campbell Federal Credit Union, where his team creates and implements organizational culture and training initiatives for the credit union. He is also a consultant, writer, and presenter, and is earning his MA in Organizational Leadership at Gonzaga University. He can be contacted at email@example.com.