Your Role Isn’t To Diffuse Conflict But Promote It

Professional instinct has conditioned us to avoid conflict with the age old saying “It’s bad for business.” Fast forward to today’s world of work and we’ll be the first to tell you that difference is what’s fueling outperforming teams. To lead your team in this direction, you’ll need to keep tension at the centre of your strategy.

Levi Goertz
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September 16, 2020

Most of us don’t like conflict, and for good reason. It comes with a slew of unwanted problems and can spread quickly. When faced with the risk of being seen as unproductive and unprofessional, the typical go-to approach for leaders has been to avoid it at all costs.

But a focus on ‘getting along’ and creating harmony in the short term will fail if you don’t generate debate and surface disagreement. Sheltering your team from agitation or confrontation won’t help. Your responsibility is to encourage healthy conflict.

It’s not about abandoning how to play nice

We’re trained to have everyone get along, to avoid making anyone look bad and to maintain a general consensus at all times. Yet agreeing for the sake of agreeing is a clear recipe for disaster. In time, this will crush your team’s motivation and alignment along with performance.

Take it from us. Our co-founder Levi Goertz, a former McKinsey & Company consultant, witnessed the costs of not practicing the company’s cultural value of Obligation to Dissent:

“We once worked with a software company to launch a new product under a tight deadline. The ask included a nice to have feature with extra engineering effort of around 30%. Because engineers on the team didn’t push back knowing they’d need more time to deliver, they not only ended up working long hours over three weeks, the deadline was missed by four days.” 

The best decisions don’t come from 1-2 people proposing something and everyone else giving a smile and a thumbs up. The tough problems you’re facing require diverging points of view where people feel safe to debate alternatives and to hash things out. 

Make no mistake. Leading this charge requires a good level of disagreement, and many teams will need a committed, healthy push from their leaders on how to do so.

Debate to Great

Here at SHIFT, we debate. A lot. It’s why we understand the true nature of teams and what it takes to make them thrive. It’s also why ‘Debate to Great’ is one of our core values.

Tried, tested and true, we use healthy conflict to get the best ideas, ambitious goals and decisions possible. By challenging each other respectfully and being open to exploring what’s wrong in the moment, our differences drive us to uncover the very insights that help organizations win at team effectiveness.

Getting conflict right

We know shifting your efforts at promoting more conflict on your team takes time and patience. That’s why we’ve got you covered. Here’s how to get started:

  • Make open disagreement part of your team’s mantra: Have a kick-off meeting with your team for everyone to sign off that countering one another is healthy and encouraged. Get permission from each member that it’s okay to disagree with an idea or decision, as long as it’s productive and not a personal attack.
  • Challenge your team to really disagree with you: Invite everyone to offer their true opinions that stack against yours in a productive way. In your role as a leader, take note of how you accept new founded voices in each person if not heard already. For this to work, be sure to immerse yourself in this process.
  • Actively recognize those who argue, even if they’re wrong: Reward the behaviors that support the process of healthy conflict and debate. In real time, thank someone for putting out an alternative idea or choosing to disagree. After a fruitful conflict, give positive feedback on the points made that moved the debate forward - regardless of the end point.
  • Depersonalize it to guard psychological safety: Debate about ideas, not people. It’s about challenging the concept and its impact, not the individual or characteristics they hold. A good exercise is to get your team to write out ideas on paper and have everyone face them and not each other.

Advocating for conflict opens up new ways of accessing untapped insights on work and your team. This is especially true with our Perspective tool that lets you review your team’s personality profile so you can better understand and address conflict to make differences a true strength. 

So go ahead, make butting heads a pillar of your team’s culture. With respect, awareness and opposing views, your team’s performance will outshine the rest.

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