Conflict can be a productive way to collaborate as a team, ensuring a variety of perspectives are brought into a solution. It can also push teams apart, when it is focused on personal attacks rather than ideological disagreements. Improve your team’s conflict capability and you’ll see better decisions, more intense commitment to them, people holding each other to account and better results.
Conflict Comes in Many Forms
Teams which are not working well together can have overt conflict. People are openly hostile to suggestions and new pieces of work – often jumping over each other to poke holes in other people’s work, and barely trying to mask it as constructive criticism. Other teams will disagree with each other extensively when they’re not a room together – but put them together and there is a suspicious amount of agreement. Both of these situations mean that new ideas aren’t explored and the team’s effectiveness is reduced.
What Does Being Good at Conflict Look Like?
Conflict can be mined and used constructively by those who understand it. You can better explore the issues facing your team, and come up with a broader set of options for moving forward. Ultimately you will make better decisions, commit to them more intensely and execute them more effectively. This also breeds a team’s resilience by showing them they can survive and flourish in even the most intense situations.
The Four Common Types of Workplace Conflict
- Goal conflict – you disagree on where you are heading. For example a marketing team might want to develop a product so that it is easier to sell while the technology team wants to build something using the latest, proprietary technology.
- Role conflict – who is in charge, making decisions and getting the credit. Who is the product owner and deciding what comes off the backlog into the next sprint is a common example of this.
- Process conflict – how do we get to where we’re going? We might all want to do discovery better, but the UX team want two-week discovery sprints while the delivery manager wants to run dual-track agile.
- Personal conflict – often we don’t realise there is conflict until it becomes personal. A professional issue becomes personal when individuals start trading passive-aggressive comments in public. They tend to talk about an individual’s capabilities rather than the issue on which they disagree.
Most of the time we experience a mix of these types of conflict. Conflict situations rarely start as personal, but if not resolved effectively, they usually end up there and become damaging to the function of the team as a result.
Productive Ideological Conflict
Perceiving productive ideological conflict as a good thing, is the first step in managing issues between teams and team members. Consultant Patrick Lencioni described a lack of disagreement as one of his five dysfunctions of teams. If you are not in conflict at some point, then it’s most likely that you’re not performing as well as you could.
In order to get to this stage you first need to trust those around you. This is the trust that people won’t shoot you down mercilessly in front of others or go behind your back when they disagree.
Productive ideological conflict is by definition, not about people but about ideas. It helps to move teams forward because it allows you to collaborate properly. There are different perspectives in the room and through these conversations you find a solution that makes use of all of them.
Again, this helps you make better decisions, commit to them more intensely, hold each other to account and drive better results.
F*ck Muttering is a Symptom of Artificial Harmony
We’ve all been in a situation when a meeting has wrapped up, we haven’t said what we really wanted to say and then gone into the corridor and unload our true thoughts to a colleague. This “f*ck muttering” holds teams back. These conversations need to happen in the room if teams are to be truly effective by engaging in productive ideological conflict.
Your team should be at the point just before conflict tips into personal, destructive conflict. This is where everyone is giving their most honest opinions on the issue at hand.
Conflict Competence – the 6 Cs
How can you and your teams get better at using conflict as a tool for collaboration? Try these six steps:
- Contract – commit to a set of behaviours or process that you as a group engage in when you get into a conflict in order to ensure that it remains productive. The discussion of this contract is a great way to normalise the idea of disagreement and to position it as useful.
- Call it – simply acknowledge that there is a conflict in the room. At this stage, all you need to do is invite your teammates to pause, address it, and take the opportunities it presents.
- Canvass views – go round the room, taking it in turns to express your position and opinions – so that everyone can have their say.
- Criteria – establish what a good way out of the conflict looks like. List these criteria and vote on what the solution needs to include. This will help your team to focus on what they have in common, rather than what’s driving them apart.
- Create options – using your criteria for what good looks like, you can deepen the debate by looking at lots of ways forward. The more options you have, the better the conversation becomes.
- Closure – nothing drains the energy and morale of a team more than an ongoing argument that doesn’t get resolved. Once you’ve found a way forward, even if the issue is not completely finalised, commit to trying the next steps you’ve created as a group.