Part of being a great team is the ability to have a good old argument. Except that arguing is not everyone’s cup of tea, even the word sends shivers down some people’s spines whilst others rub their hands together with glee. Yet teams that don’t have a constructive level of conflict are boring to be in, keep doing the same things and getting the same results and frankly, begin to feel a bit stale and uninspiring to be in.
Teams that avoid constructive conflict:
• Have boring meetings
• Create environments where back-channel politics and personal attacks thrive
• Ignore controversial topics that are critical to team success
• Fail to tap into all the opinions and perspective of team members
• Waste time and energy with posturing and interpersonal risk management
Teams that indulge:
• Have lively, interesting meetings
• Extract and exploit the ideas of all team members
• Solve real problems quickly
• Minimise politics
• Put critical topics on the table for discussion
We work with many different teams from the most senior to service managers, fundraising managers and operational functions and we have learnt along the way what it takes to get a team arguing and raising their performance.
Call it what you want
The term you use can have a huge impact emotionally on individuals in your team. For some of us the word “conflict” conjures up a massive aggressive row with shouting and threats of physical harm so maybe that isn’t the term for you. We have heard many ranging from healthy conflict to chucking ideas around to heated debate. Many teams we work with agree on the term to signal when it is happening so everyone knows it is a healthy constructive part of their relationship that results in better performance. A favourite is a team that announces that they need to “enter the padded cell “– a place where ideas and opinions can be thrown around without risk of injury.
Agree ground rules
Draw a line across a flip chart, label the left hand side “very uncomfortable” and the right hand side “very comfortable” with a mark in the middle. Ask each team member to place themselves on the line according to how comfortable they feel about indulging in conflict. Those to the right are the miners of conflict. They need to be unleashed because they are happy to prod and poke an idea to make it the best it can be. Those on the left are the climate builders, they make sure the debate is held in a mature way and that when it’s over everyone is ok. Some teams we work with draw up a charter for conflict – how we want to behave during debate – which reflects the needs of the left and the right and respects what each bring to the debating table. After a while the charter doesn’t get referred to as the habits become second nature.
Get rid of your hat
This is vital for healthy debate. Everyone must let go of their functional hats, throw them in the air so they can see what the bigger picture is. The moment this happens everyone can take part without feeling defensive or that they are having a personal dig at someone. The issue then becomes ‘ours’ not ‘mine’ or ‘yours’. In one management team a head of finance had to explain that the team would have to bear with him and his department whilst they adjusted a large financial process that had been driven by a strategic decision way above his head. Instead of his colleagues moaning and trying to challenge the decision and shoot the messenger they all rallied around, helped him think through the impact and together they agreed how everyone would behave through that period. They took their hats off and didn’t force the finance manager to sit with his firmly on his head.
Ask don’t posture
Posturing is a very clear sign that all is not well in a team. An issue is raised and the statements reign down on everyone’s heads none of them bearing any relation to what has been said before. It is said that we don’t listen because we are too busy thinking what we want to say next and posturing is clear evidence that this is happening. In one team as a colleague was making his point another colleague raised her hand to speak wriggling in her chair like a small child such was the passion of the point she wanted to make at the expense of listening to her team mate. Questions are your best friend in debate it means everyone can take part whether you understand the technicality of the issue or not and it often opens up a wider discussion.
Practise makes perfect
The more you do it the easier it is and then it doesn’t feel like conflict. Some of the best teams we work with think they are rubbish at conflict and then they have a healthy debate in front of us and when we point out that was conflict at its best they are surprised and delighted. Conflict done well is invigorating and productive and so energises everyone. The adrenalin pumps a little but not so much that the quality of ideas plummets and you are ready to fight or flee.
The advantages of being good at debate are plenty yet the real beauty of it is the way it builds trust. When a team has trust that is wide and deep it can do anything it sets its mind to and overcome any challenge or obstacle. Working in a team that trusts is a great place to be and a good constructive argument can help get you there.
Are you and your team ready to enter the padded cell?