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Thoughts from the Field - Issue #4 - The Case for Conflict

By Rick Packer - December 2010


The Case for Conflict

Just by watching the evening news, it is readily apparent that conflict is ever present in our society. And, the workplace is no exception. For many, conflict brings about a visceral reaction — one that transports people back to the days of tension-filled playground disputes. Consequently, it is easy to draw the conclusion that conflict is negative, should be avoided at all costs, and has no place in the work environment.

If you follow The Table Group and our book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, we have a completely different view on the importance of workplace conflict — we actively advocate for it. For many, the confusion may lie in the interpretation of the actual word ‘conflict’ rather than the intent or action.

Essentially, great teams have what we call ‘healthy ideological conflict.’ This requires productive debate around ideas and concepts, not people. Great teams do not hold back. They pursue difficult conversations by getting all the facts on the table for the sake of making informed, better decisions. So, if embracing the word ‘conflict’ in your corporate culture seems unreasonable, refer to the process as a ‘debate’ or ‘discussion’ — whatever it takes to ensure people are not holding back their opinions. In our work as consultants, clients often push back on the idea of engaging in conflict and simply need to be reminded of the benefits of making healthy conflict part of their work life, especially in their meetings.

High Stakes
Initially, engaging in conflict can be uncomfortable and emotional, so team members need to understand the benefits of conflict in order to embrace those difficult conversations. What exactly is at stake when a team does not engage in healthy conflict? We’ve outlined five reasons below:

  1. Wasted Time: Revisiting unresolved conversations meeting after meeting not only drives people crazy, it wastes time. Healthy teams roll up their sleeves, get uncomfortable, attack issues head-on, and ultimately make informed decisions.
  2. Poor Decision Making: If all the facts are not on the table and team members have not weighed-in on a topic, critical information could be missing resulting in suboptimal decisions.
  3. Wasted Money: Wasted resources that result from uninformed decisions are commonplace. Spending time up-front debating an issue will ultimately translate to the bottom line.
  4. Lack of Buy-In: Team members are less likely to buy into a decision if their opinion was not considered and factored into the process; thereby, affecting employee commitment.
  5. Impact on Shareholders: When companies avoid conflict on an ongoing basis, shareholders take notice. I often ask clients to visualize their company’s shareholders standing in the hallway watching the team through a one-way mirror. Would those shareholders be happy with how decisions are being made?

Conflict Norms
To effectively make conflict a core part of a team’s culture, we suggest establishing “conflict norms.” Conflict norms are a handful of expectations the team establishes and commits to in order to engage in healthy conflict during team discussions. Conflict norms can differ from team to team but here are several conflict norms that our clients have utilized:

  • Silence Equals Disagreement — One of the goals in a team setting should be full participation. When team members withhold their opinion, it ultimately hurts the outcome of the discussion. We often mistake silence as support. That’s not appropriate. Oftentimes, people are silent because they disagree but are too uncomfortable to openly share. A team that embraces the conflict norm of Silence Equals Disagreement does not allow team members to sit in silence at team meetings.
  • Do You Support? — At the end of a discussion, simply ask the team, “Do you support this direction?” One client, Craig Williams (Vice President, US McDonalds Division, The Coca Cola Company) does this better than most. Craig asks each team member where they specifically stand on the topic. Each team member gives their opinion regardless of their standing. And the best part, Craig listens and considers each opinion before moving forward with a decision.
  • Remove the Back Door — Teams need to stop the post-meeting that is commonly referred to as the ‘meeting after the meeting.’ I encourage the team leader to repeat the following at the end of a team meeting: “If anyone is thinking of coming to me or anyone else on the team to rehash today’s topics, it’s not an option, so state it now.” After the shock wears off within a few weeks, your team will understand their only outlet is when the entire team is gathered together.
  • Debate Trumps Agenda — Teams should not consider a meeting agenda set in stone. Scott Wallace, CEO of Citizen’s Property Insurance, embraces this conflict norm with his team. While agenda topics are an important guidance tool, Scott takes the time to have a good debate about key issues, rather than moving through the agenda for the sake of covering all the issues. Allowing this dynamic to occur helps generate healthy conflict on a team because team members will be assured that key topics will be fully discussed and not covered at a surface level.
  • Offline Alert — During a team meeting, a huge red flag occurs when someone says, “Let’s take that offline.” This typically occurs because the leader doesn’t want the conversation to unfold in front of the entire team — in other words, they want to avoid conflict. In the majority of situations, it is perfectly appropriate to air the issue among the whole team. Confronting a difficult topic in the group removes ambiguity about the situation and everyone understands its resolution.

A leader needs to embrace the power of conflict and set the stage for engaging in healthy debate. Teams that use conflict effectively will drive toward better decisions, develop strong team commitment, and ultimately garner results.

Introducing conflict norms to your team can be a sensitive subject and requires context and some degree of preparation. To help you prepare, click here to view our latest webinar “The Case for Conflict.”