Healthy Conflict

Teams that have been together a long time learn to read the room quickly. They find a rhythm, a way of communicating and collaborating that minimizes conflict. That’s a good thing, right?

Actually, it’s possible to have too much of a good thing. Productive conflict can help teams find more innovative ideas, solve tough problems, and forge stronger relationships. Most of us dread conflict in the workplace, so we avoid it if at all possible. We associate conflict with broken relationships, anger, and hurt feelings. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Here’s how to know if your team is getting along too well. Think about your last meeting. Were there any surprises? Could you predict who was going to speak up and what they were going to say? Was there any disagreement? Do you feel you heard from everyone, or just the usual personalities who dominate discussions?

If your meetings are predictable, it might be a sign that everyone has settled into a role they’re comfortable playing. Being comfortable may feel good, but it almost never leads to breakthroughs. Stirring up some productive tension may help your team become stronger and more creative.

Writing for Harvard Business Review, executive coach Sabina Nawaz says “Raising the temperature in your team meetings means creating enough productive tension through diversity and dissension to stimulate different ideas. Most of us want to (too) quickly drive to consensus and quash divergent points of view before they even surface. Holding out on converging is uncomfortable. Bringing up ideas against the organization’s conventional thinking, is difficult. But inserting a pause to think differently provides necessary provocation to up our game.”

Albert Einstein is credited with saying “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” Be explicit with your team about why you’re raising the heat in a meeting; Nawaz says you don’t want to create the impression that you’re taking potshots at the team or questioning their work. State your purpose: “I want to introduce a new way of brainstorming, one that shakes up our usual interactions so we can come up with ideas that might not surface in our usual sessions.”

One way to break the patterns your team has fallen into is to call out behavior that everyone sees but no one challenges. “We always look to Paul to start the conversation. Why don’t you kick it off, Bev?” “I’ve noticed that the last three times someone from the marketing team has started to speak, a programmer has interrupted. Let’s let them finish a sentence, shall we?”

One way to disagree without triggering defensive behavior is using “I” language instead of “you” language. Anne Grady, writing for Entrepreneur online, says, “Think about how you feel when someone begins with “You should” or “You always.” When someone begins a sentence with “I feel” or “I need,” you are generally more receptive.”

You can also turn disagreement into a game. “Al – give me the worst idea you’ve got.” “Debra – tell John everything that’s wrong with what he just said.” Give your team members who are the most reluctant to speak up permission to say what’s on their minds. Applaud the most honest or divergent opinions.

As a leader, you can help spur the team to dig deeper. Using phrases like “I don’t think that’s the best we can come up with” or “I’m not sure that’s good enough for this problem” might sting at first. But if you’ve laid the groundwork, building trust in your commitment to the outcome, your team will start to push past the first and easy ideas to the better, more interesting solutions.


Work hard. Play Hard. 

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