Valuing Team Conflict

conflict-cartoon-2“If we agree on everything, then one of us is unnecessary.”

Conflict has gotten a bad reputation. It can make us feel threatened and uncomfortable. It can shut down communication and even cripple our ability to think. But some conflicts – not all – if they are handled constructively, can give tremendous opportunities for teams to examine their assumptions, see broader perspectives and generate creative solutions. In fact, true team collaboration may not be possible without some form of conflict.

A few years ago, I got a call from an executive who was looking for a team building solution to get his leadership team to contribute more ideas during meetings. “I’d like to know what’s on their minds,” he said. “We have these weekly meetings and I feel like I’m the only one with any ideas on how to deal with the issues. How can ten smart people have so little to contribute?” So, we set up a full day team building program to help the team experience some successful collaboration, and to have them openly examine their own processes. We managed to get through an energizing icebreaker with lots of laughter and some good ideas surfacing, but things took a bad turn shortly into the first real team challenge. Just as the team arrived at the crux of the problem, a booming voice yelled, “Stop!” All eyes turned to the executive who proceeded to bark instructions to everyone in the group until the problem was more or less solved. Now, periodically he stopped to ask if everyone agreed with “the plan” and, of course, everyone nodded vigorously each time. But, I think you see the problem here …

In a truly collaborative environment, all people on the team feel they have permission to contribute to a solution, and that means they have permission to disagree. They express their “contrary” ideas openly and constructively, both with their peers and with their managers. For such a constructive environment to exist, a number of conditions must be met:

  • Trust must be high. There can be no punishment, emotional or otherwise, for putting an idea forward or for respectfully disagreeing with anyone. And no “blame” for ideas that the team had agreed to but turned out badly.
  • Respect must be high. Treat ideas and opinions as if they are a gift of great value. Learn to say “thanks” whether you agree or not.
  • Judgement must be suspended on ideas and opinions until they have a chance to be understood by all. We at Summit say, “Love every idea for ten seconds.”
  • Commitment to success must be high. The focus must be on achieving the stated goal, together and in the best way possible considering time available; not on being “the one who saved the day”.
  • Listening skills must be high. If you are leader with a team of 10 people and you are the one talking most of the time … well, you may want to reflect on that.
  • A “win-win” attitude must prevail. When people have different ideas or options available, there must be a genuine attempt to find a solution that honours the best of both.

There are two more conditions for team collaboration that usually rest in the leader’s ball court: patience and humility. The leader must be humble enough to accept that other people’s ideas might be just as good as his/her own and patient enough to invest adequate time in the process of collaboration.

On the other hand, if the room is on fire, barking out orders is still ok.

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