Conflict. It sounds like a big, bad word that leads to hurt feelings and poor productivity, but that does not have to be the case.
Constructive conflict can be immensely beneficial for teams. Successful risk-based teams do not shy away from potential disagreements. They view them as opportunities to share their true thoughts and ideas. It leads to a larger, genuine discussion with other members of the team. This raw exchange of ideas spurs innovation and encourages creativity.
In risk-based work, teams often need to think outside the box. They need to see potential problems from all angles. They need to discover possible solutions to these risks and present them to clients and others in the company.
Conflict will help these teams turn over some metaphorical rocks to find new reas and avenues to explore, making the team more effective.
What happens when teams do not engage in productive, constructive conflict?
When teams avoid conflict at all costs, on the surface everything can look peaceful, but underneath problems will simmer. Among teams that try to avoid conflict, instead of embracing it in a constructive atmosphere, we see the following:
An explosion in office politics.
Since people become uncomfortable expressing their genuine ideas, they do not tell people directly their thoughts about team plans. This leads to gossip as people try to gain the upper hand in subversive ways. Ever heard someone walk out of a meeting grumbling about a ‘stupid’ plan?
Meetings become boring
Guess what? Meetings do not have to have an atmosphere of people just nodding along to what the leader says. It can actually be an exciting time to exchange ideas and determine fresh directions. If everyone avoids upsetting anyone else, meetings will become boring wastes of time. Few ideas will be exchanged and the productivity that the group could have experienced will be lost.
Decisions and directions will not reflect the ideas of all the team members
People will be hesitant to speak out and contradict ideas put forth by others. This means that the direction the team takes will not adequately represent what the group thinks and what they might have otherwise been able to achieve.
The group will spend too much time trying to make everyone happy
Instead of focusing on the project at hand, the team will instead spend time playing politics and trying to communicate with each other effectively without upsetting anyone else. Time that could have been saved by being direct will be lost.
Destructive arguments will erupt
Teams comprise of people from various backgrounds and with different personalities. This means occasional misunderstandings or disagreements are inevitable. Failing to address them constructively upfront can lead to festering resentment and eruptions of destructive arguments.
What does a productive conflict look like?
Occasionally, teams decide to take steps towards embracing productive conflict, but they face one key problem: they do not know what a constructive argument would look like.
When people argue in a controlled, helpful manner, they do not fall into name calling or attacking people instead of ideas. Instead, they follow predetermined guidelines that were established particularly to help team members resolve conflicts and find common ground.
During the disagreement, the parties will be free to express their new ideas. Others will be able to agree and disagree, expressing their points of view and what makes a particular side a better option than the other.
In this environment, team members feel supported in suggesting ideas that might fall outside the normal scope. This might mean trying a new direction or strategy for the team. They know that they will not be mocked for the idea or shut out from future group discussions because the team members have all realized the value of constructive conflict.
The group will collectively evaluate the different options, with the group leader ensuring that people remain on topic and moving forward within the disagreement. This boosts collaboration, as people will find that they can truly work together. They are not afraid of saying “the wrong thing” and upsetting others. They also know that the team has made decisions after evaluating the ideas and input from all the members.
The team will then be able to make a decision after evaluating all the possibilities. They will have more confidence in their decisions because they were not blindly made based on the input of one or two people. Nor were they based on simply “how things have always been done”.
How do I encourage constructive conflict on my risk-based team?
Step 1. Before projects begin, create a set of guidelines governing how disputes will be handled.
You want to make sure your team has a concrete framework to follow for navigating these disputes so that they can arrive at a successful resolution. This framework should include how people present their ideas, ensuring that everyone uses respectful, helpful language. They should use words that point to the present, rather than the past, and should focus on facts and specific statements. This framework will give everyone a common document to refer back to when disagreements arise.
Step 2. Reward those who offer unique thinking and ideas.
Remember that many teams actively discourage disagreements, so learning how to have constructive conflict may require a change in paradigm for many team members. Encourage people to express their ideas by rewarding those who present unique thinking and ideas, particularly if they end up being adopted by the group. This will let others in the group know that the team really does appreciate fresh ideas, even if they conflict with the opinions of others.
Step 3. Encourage people to remember ‘it is not personal, it's business’.
One of the biggest obstacles to embracing conflict is people who give lip service to the potential value of disagreements, but still take people contradicting them personally. Personal slights like this can lead to hurt feelings and disrupt team unity. Encourage people to remember that it is not personal, it's business. They were selected to be on the team because they have the experience and knowledge to contribute, but that does not mean that others will never disagree with some of their opinions. Encouraging this mature, professional attitude will create an improved team atmosphere.
Step 4. Offer people permission ‘in the moment’ to offer new ideas.
Until people get in the habit of offering new ideas, you will want to give them direct permission ‘in the moment’ to express potentially controversial ideas. For example, during team meetings, leave time for people to offer new thoughts. Remind people that they should not be afraid to voice new ideas. Discuss the value that conflict can bring to the group when done correctly.
Step 5. Do not let side disagreements fester.
Sometimes disagreements or misunderstandings can arise between members of the team. Rather than face them directly, they may try to avoid the person with whom they have a disagreement. This will make it harder for the team to effectively collaborate.
If anyone on the team notices an argument bubbling under the surface, they should bring it to light. Direct the people to follow the guidelines to resolve the disagreement. They can do so personally or with the rest of the team, depending upon the nature of the conflict and its potential implications for the group. This will help encourage positive, open relationships among team members. It also prevents side grievances from permeating group discussions and taking constructive conflict to a destructive place.
Step 6. Consider the personalities of team members
People all have different personalities, which then come with different strengths and weaknesses regarding their interpersonal relationships. When you build a team, you likely already took into account the different personalities of the members. Use your insight about their personalities to offer them individualized insights about voicing their opinions and having constructive conflicts. There are a variety of personality evaluation tools that can be used to also give you a more objective outlook and individualized advice.
When conflicts arise, it does not have to be a detriment to the group. In fact, when disagreements are channeled correctly, they can inspire new ideas and innovation. To tap into the power of these productive group conflicts, you need to create an atmosphere where people feel welcome to express their ideas. If you want to work towards an ideal risk-based group, consider how you can include some of these ideas in your team development. Drive your team forward with the ideas and creativity encouraged by productive conflict.