When you think about a high-performing team, the first thing that comes to mind is probably not “This is a place where conflict happens.” Most people assume that the absence of conflict makes for a high-performing team. In a twist of irony, the opposite is actually the truth.
Patrick Lencioni, in his book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, explains that teams that engage in conflict effectively are able to:
- Put crucial topics on the table for discussion
- Extract and exploit the ideas of all team members
- Solve real problems quickly and effectively
Don’t those three points characterize a high-performing team? Isn’t that what you want for your team? That being said, there is a difference between unhealthy conflict and healthy conflict. High-performing teams avoid the former and engage in the latter.
Daniel Dana is an internationally renowned conflict mediator. He is President of Dana Mediation Institute and is known as the ‘Conflict Doctor.’ He defines workplace conflict in the following way: “A condition between two people in which at least one feels angry, resentful, hostile, etc., toward the other … and which leads to disruption of effective work and morale in the workplace.”
Note several important aspects to this definition:
- ‘At least one feels angry.’ You don’t have to have two people seeing something as a conflict in order to have a conflict. One person’s dissatisfaction is sufficient to create a conflict situation because the relationship is disrupted.
- ‘Angry, resentful, hostile.’ These are all very strong emotional words. Conflict always has an emotional component.
- ‘Disruption of effective work and morale in the workplace.’ Unhealthy conflict disrupts effective work and morale and can profoundly affect a company’s bottom line.
It is the third point that truly divides unhealthy and healthy conflict. In unhealthy conflict situations, progress is hindered – or comes grinding to a complete halt.
Healthy conflict is based on trust – the foundation of high-performing teams we discussed in a previous blog. When team members trust one another, they feel free to voice opposing perspectives and engage in disagreements. They can even speak vehemently and with passionate emotion. They know it is safe to be vulnerable because they will not be personally attacked. They recognize that their fellow team members all share the same core values and want the same thing – the good of the business. Methods and opinions may vary, but the vision unifies the team.
In this atmosphere of mutual trust, heated conflict can take place that actually furthers the business. It’s through healthy conflict that ideas are honed and refined, problems are solved, and innovation is born. There can be extensive arguments, but as long as the communication between the disagreeing parties remains open, honest, and transparent, that is a good thing. There can be expressions of anger and deep emotion, but as long as there are no personal attacks, that is perfectly acceptable. At the end of the day, healthy conflict engenders strong team engagement that furthers the goals and objectives of the business.
Agreement and Alignment
High-performing teams know that healthy conflict leads to better outcomes for the business. They also know that healthy conflict does not guarantee agreement by all team members regarding the chosen direction or solution. Agreement is the ideal, but it doesn’t always happen. There will be times when one or more team members do not agree with how matters have been decided.
In those instances, disagreeing team members make the choice to align themselves with the team on the chosen path forward. In practical terms, alignment is about:
- Being willing to give 100% of your effort and support, rather than undercutting the decision in a passive-aggressive fashion
- Presenting a united front as a team so that employees do not receive mixed messages
- Championing the decision to employees to encourage and motivate them to action
Ultimately, healthy conflict is not solely about what happens around the conference table. It is about building a culture of mutual trust where people feel safe to express themselves. It is about presenting and arguing differences of opinion without attacking people. And, finally, it is about choosing to agree or align with the team’s final decision for the good of the business. This is what high-performing teams do on a daily basis – and what your team can choose to do, too.