Has your leadership team ever experienced conflict? Your people disagree over an action or strategy, words are spoken, and feelings are hurt? Are the feelings so raw that no one wants to speak up at the next team meeting – or even attend? How can you make conflict a productive experience?
I was recently in a meeting with two leaders who were engaged in a debate about a new company strategy. They had significant differences of opinion and were clearly in conflict. As the debate intensified, I wondered how they would handle the conflict.
They were magnificent! They debated but never argued. They made their points and questioned each other’s points but were always respectful. Clearly, they trusted each other, and both wanted what was best for the organization. They just disagreed on how to get there.
In the end, they brought out the best in each other’s ideas and developed a winning strategy that was better than either one created on their own. These two leaders were masters in the art of productive conflict. Their ability to master conflict is probably one of the reasons their company is so successful.
Avoid the fight
What is productive conflict and how do you achieve it? How do you avoid it turning into a fight with hurt feelings? Productive conflict is defined as “an open exchange of conflicting or differing ideas in which parties feel equally heard.” Productive conflict creates opportunities to innovate and find the best solution.
Here are five key elements:
- Trust. When trust is present, teams engage in unfiltered ideological debate. When trust is lacking, teams revert to “Group Think” (agreeing with the dominant leader) or “Gossip” (discussions outside of team meetings). The environment of trust is set by the team leader.
- Competence. Trust is enhanced when team members feel confident in each other’s abilities. No one thinks they are the smartest person in the room. “Together we are smarter” is the mindset. They feel each member has a valid contribution and they really listen to each other.
- Alignment. Members are clear on and aligned around common goals and mission. They start with common ground and identify levels of agreement.
- Caring. They care about the company and each other. They want what’s best for the organization.
- Civility. Productive conflict focuses on the issues and never degenerates into personal attacks or arguing. Negative observations are often reframed into positive action items. “This was bad” is reframed into “How could we improve this?,” or “What if we tried this?”
Creating productive conflict
It often helps if the leader takes the lead in creating a structured environment for productive conflict. One of the best examples I’ve seen was at a company where I was invited to consult. The company was facing a major decision on whether to expand internationally and the leadership team was divided on the issue. The CEO structured the meeting so that the advocate for expansion made a presentation on the “why” (benefits) of expansion. The team was encouraged to ask questions. There were a few questions but not enough for a lively debate in the opinion of the CEO.
What the CEO did next was brilliant. He designated the biggest critic of the expansion to be the advocate and to make the presentation again. He then designated the advocate to be the critic and lead the team in critical questioning. This switch in roles loosened up the team and they felt more confident to ask better questions, challenge the presentation, and innovate to find the best solution.
With the entire team fully engaged, they were able to discover not only “why” they should expand, but more importantly “how” they should do it. They now operate successfully in six countries.
Mastering productive conflict is one of the keys to team success and a key skill for leaders.