Want an easy way to delineate between high- and low-functioning teams? Look for disagreements. Don’t see any? Then you’re probably watching a low-performing team.
High-functioning teams have lots of productive disagreements. Show me a harmonious team who gets along in constant agreement, and I’ll show you a team that isn’t achieving as much as it could. Perhaps it’s playing it too safe, or perhaps it’s leaving good ideas unsaid, or (and this is the most likely) perhaps it’s not benefiting from the full pushback and pressure-testing of high-quality opposition. Either way, those teams that seem about as harmonious as the Brady Bunch are about as fake, as well.
Why? Because one of the primary benefits of a team is to generate creative synergies, which enable the whole to become greater than the sum of its parts. Productive conflicts are the key to unlocking creativity, gaining buy-in from stakeholders, and anticipating and proactively addressing problems with the plan.
Thought leaders have been preaching this for decades:
- Edmonson in Teaming talks about the importance of establishing psychological safety so that people feel comfortable disagreeing.
- Lencioni in The 5 Dysfunctions of a Team mentions the “fear of conflict” as the second dysfunction in which teams seek artificial harmony over constructive debate.
- Kantor in Reading the Room talks about how disabled opposition robs a conversation of its full potential.
- McClain Smith in Elephant in the Room talks about how ignoring disagreements and avoiding conflict leaves interpersonal frames untested and locked in, depriving the team from learning.
- Isaacs sums up the importance of conflict in this succinct quote: “In dialogue people learn to use the energy of their differences to enhance their collective wisdom.”
All these thought leaders agree: productive conflict is essential to high-functioning teams. And yet, we avoid it. Why? A million reasons, including: we are worried about hurting your feelings, we are hoping you’ll support our flawed idea next time if we don’t point out the flaws in your idea this time, we are worried about looking like a pessimist amidst social pressure to be optimists, we are worried about being wrong alone vs. going with the flow and potentially being wrong as a group, we’ve tried in the past to disagree and got shot down by defensiveness or personal emotions, or we quite simply don’t know how. Any or all of these reasons could disable good, powerful, value-added productive conflict. Any or all of these reasons could be holding your team back from reaching full potential.
What to do about it? I’ll tell you in a minute, but first two caveats:
1) Conflict for conflict’s sake is not the goal. Unproductive conflict can erode team performance even more than no conflict. Unproductive conflict occurs when people don’t have trust/benefit-of-the-doubt and so turn disagreements personal. Suddenly I’m not criticizing Sally’s idea—I’m criticizing Sally as a person who has ideas. Likewise, unproductive conflict is when people nod and say yes in the room and then run behind closed doors to voice all of their opposition anonymously. Unproductive conflict should be sniffed out and addressed, so that it doesn’t threaten to shut down productive conflict.
2) Brainstorming is not the time for conflict. Productive conflict should help with innovation. Brainstorming is another contributor to innovation. So by the transitive property of mathematics, conflict should help in brainstorming, right? WRONG! Brainstorming is a time to embrace all ideas, no matter how creative, wonky, or dumb. The time for productive conflict is when you’re considering which of the ideas generated in brainstorming should be adopted, and what potential obstacles the implementation plan might face. Not during the ideation phase. Opposition there can tend to stifle creativity and impose filters on people’s imaginations.
OK, enough with the caveats. How do you encourage more conflict? Here are some suggestions:
- End every meeting with: “What lingering concerns exist?” And then stay silent and give the hesitant a chance to speak up.
- Assign a devil’s advocate to each planning discussion. This person’s role is to point out the problems even if they are on board with the idea.
- Directly ask for opposing points of view (e.g., “someone oppose this idea”). Then celebrate opposition when you find it.
- Allow conflict to keep going once it surfaces. Too often leaders step in to stifle it—so long as it isn’t turning personal, allow it to thrive!
- If you’re asking for a roundtable of opinions, ask the more timid folks first, and the senior-most person last. It’s tougher to favor Option B when the senior or aggressive folks have already advocated for Option A.
- Ask people to switch sides and argue the opposite of whatever they were just arguing. This ensures people are exploring the ideas from all angles.
- Throw out a stupid idea and see if people disagree with it. If they do, model good behavior in responding to opposition (e.g., “really good points. Thanks for opposing—that’s key in a good dialogue.”)
- For larger groups, there’s some great technology out there that allows you to anonymously poll your team members and instantaneously see the results up on the central screen. This might be a good way to test whether team members feel as comfortable with the current approach.
- Teach people how to engage productively, including teaching them the importance of having a robust exchange of strong opinions, loosely held.
Conflict isn’t typically fun. And productive conflict is more difficult than agreement. But it’s critical to getting the most out of your teams, and any corporate culture that stifles it is putting a governor on its own growth. What are other ways to encourage productive conflict?
Ben works in HR/OD at Merrimack Pharmaceuticals, a Cambridge company dedicated to the simple goal of trying to cure cancer… no big deal! Ben’s on his second career, having spent his first in business/strategy consulting, mostly with Bain & Co and Monitor Group, which basically just means he relies on MS Excel to solve virtually any problem he faces. If he’s not coaching or working with colleagues on their approach to leadership, he’s helping teams create effective dynamics or planning a recognition program to motivate employees. And sometimes, he’s chasing his wife around the ice hockey rink in his weekly pick-up game, or playing tennis, squash, skiing, hiking, mountain biking, or anything else to expend his nervous energy!