Make conflict productive

09 March, 2020

Arguments aren’t always a bad thing. Learn to play referee as your team thrashes out problems.

Many leaders are uncomfortable with conflict, preferring not to entertain any disagreement or discord within their teams. Conflict, however, is unavoidable – even necessary – in a high-performing group of people. When issues aren’t aired and resolved, they keep lurking under the surface, leading to growing tension and petty politics. In such an atmosphere, team members find it difficult to trust one another and collaborate, slowing down productivity and progress.

This week, my message focuses on how can leaders can facilitate productive conflict within their teams.

85% of executives had concerns about their company that they were afraid to raise due to fear of getting caught in conflict. Can you imagine the number of problems that are festering in corporations across the globe?

Conflict is crucial for surfacing risks and facilitating improvement. In her TED Talk, Dare to Disagree, Margaret Heffernan mentions a startling finding: in a survey across the US and Europe, 85 percent of executives had concerns about their company that they were afraid to raise due to fear of getting caught in conflict. As Heffernan points out:

Most of the biggest catastrophes that we’ve witnessed rarely come from information that is secret or hidden. It comes from information that is freely available and out there, but that we are wilfully blind to, because we can’t handle the conflict that it provokes. But when we dare to break that silence and…create conflict, we enable ourselves and the people around us to do our very best thinking.

Disagreement is a natural result of diversity: when you have people with different thought processes and backgrounds working together, you are bound to have clashes. By challenging assumptions and revealing weaknesses, conflict can help weed out inefficiencies and strengthen outcomes. In her TED Talk, Heffernan gives the example of Alice Stewart, the epidemiologist who first linked prenatal X-rays and childhood cancer. It took Stewart over 25 years to convince the medical community to act on her results, but she stayed confident. This was largely thanks to her partner, statistician George Kneale, who challenged her at every step and actively tried to disprove her findings. When the results held up despite his best efforts, she knew they were rock solid. As Heffernan notes:

It’s a fantastic model of collaboration – thinking partners who aren’t echo chambers. I wonder how many of us have, or dare to have, such collaborators. Alice and George were very good at conflict. They saw it as thinking.

As you set out to harness the potential of conflict, remember that while disagreements may be ultimately rewarding, they are still essentially uncomfortable. Even a healthy conflict will feel awkward! The idea is to get past that discomfort and emerge on the other side, without damaging personal relationships.

Here are 7 ways in which leaders can facilitate productive conflict within their teams:

01. Stop being scared of emotions

When it comes to the workplace, many of us think it’s best to “leave emotions at home”. But that’s not how it works! Emotions aren’t unnatural or embarrassing; they’re important indicators that can help you protect yourself, identify opportunities and build stronger relationships. As leaders, let’s stop avoiding feelings and make it okay for our teams to “bring emotions to work”. (As an aside, this also plays a vital role in building mental health awareness at work.)

2. Be conflict positive

If a discussion starts getting heated, don’t immediately shut it down by taking a unilateral decision or calling for a coffee break. Allow the argument to proceed, and help it move in the right direction by asking thoughtful questions and ensuring that things don’t get personal. As far as possible, push through the emotional discomfort, as advised by Liane Davey in her Harvard Business Review article, Let Your Team Have That Heated Conversation:

I am often asked whether it’s best to continue with the conversation that’s become emotional or to adjourn and return to the emotional subject later. I encourage you, wherever possible, to keep going in the moment. First, because it reinforces the idea that emotions are not toxic and are a natural part of life. Next, because returning to an emotional conversation that you’ve paused can be very awkward. Use your judgment.

Davey also explains that it’s important not to punish team members for triggering strong emotions in others. Tough, probing questions can sometimes cause an emotional response – as long as they were asked respectfully, don’t clamp down on them. If people become scared to ask important questions, your decision making is bound to suffer.

3. Set rules of engagement

It can be helpful to come up with ground rules for disagreements between team members. By creating a shared set of protocols, the team becomes much more comfortable with the idea of disagreeing with one another and engaging in productive conflict. Try to formulate the rules together with your team, since it’s important to get buy-in from everyone. You could include things such as:

  • Speak directly to the person with whom you have a problem (rather than telling everyone else on the team about it first)
  • Be respectful at all times – no personal attacks or foul language
  • Take turns to paraphrase each other’s arguments (to gain a better understanding of the other person’s point of view)
  • Discuss issues face to face, or via video chat (not email)

4. Identify the source

What should you do if a team member has a very emotional reaction? In the article mentioned above, Davey explains that managers need to understand the root cause to in order to address it:

It’s important to remember that — just like pain — emotions are symptomatic, but not diagnostic. If you’re seeing an emotional outburst (whether that be crying, yelling, or table-pounding)…it might be because the discussion is challenging a deeply-held belief, or providing new and disorienting information, or causing the person to question their abilities, character, or self-concept.

Davey suggests a very straightforward, non-judgmental response. For example, you could simply say “This is important. What do I need to understand?” This avoids embarrassing the person, and opens up a space for them to explain how they’re feeling and why.

5. Facilitate resolution

The best-case scenario is for the involved parties to arrive at an understanding – a solution imposed from the top is never as effective. Being the leader, your job is to facilitate this process, as explained in the piece, How To Foster And Resolve Productive Conflict:

Your listening-to-telling ratio should be 4:1, and the “telling” part should mostly be active listening tactics to help team members understand underlying assumptions. That means asking open-ended questions, restating and reframing team members’ perspectives, and encouraging the other people in the room to do the same. Set the tone for this discussion by reminding people to stick to the facts, to talk about behaviors instead of traits, and to follow the team’s ground rules for conflict.

If the conversation really seems stuck, ask each team member to share their BATNA. In negotiation parlance, a BATNA is your “best alternative to a negotiated agreement”—basically, what your team members think will happen if they can’t resolve their dispute. Then ask them how their BATNAs will affect the rest of the team. Articulating consequence to the group may help them recommit to finding a solution.

6. Tailor conflict resolution

It’s important to remember that not all people respond to conflict in the same way. Some team members will thrive in a lively public debate, welcoming a chance to thrash out the problem and capable of handling criticism in front of an audience. Others may prefer a one-on-one setting to have a frank discussion. As a leader, you need to keep these differences in mind as you create a team culture around productive conflict. Keep an eye on emerging clashes in your team and try to tailor your approach depending on the people involved.

7. Appoint a devil’s advocate

In the spirit of encouraging healthy, enthusiastic debate, experts suggest appointing a devil’s advocate whose goal is to ask uncomfortable questions during team meetings and strategy planning sessions. Rotate this duty among different team members. Suggested questions include:

  • What are the best reasons not to do this?
  • What don’t we know that, if we did know, would change our decision?
  • If we had more money or time, what would we do?

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