You know that your team is conflict avoidant. You know it’s preventing you from surfacing issues, thoroughly discussing them, and getting them resolved effectively. You really want to make it better, but how do you start? The people on your team (and maybe even your boss) are seriously unwilling to broach any subject that might get uncomfortable, so you know you can’t go for the gusto. The secret is to start by adding small but meaningful dissention to your discussions. Here’s a few you can try.
- Test the facts. As people introduce information to back up their points of view, do a little fact checking. “You’re proposing that we roll this program out to our high-end customers first based on the idea that they are more digitally savvy than other segments. What are you basing that on?”
- Explore a different side. If the conversation is focused on one aspect of the problem, shed light on a different angle. “We’ve done a good job at making this program simple. What could we do to make it sticky?”
- Represent a stakeholder. When your colleagues view an issue from a particular perspective, shift around to view it from a different point of view. ““I agree completely that this program is going to be a winner for our customers. How do you think it’s going to land with our operations team?”
- Add a contingency. Even if you agree with the plan that’s forming, it’s valuable to get people thinking about other ways the scenario might play out. “I agree that’s the way to go because I also think we’re going to get our project to market first. How would the launch plan change if the competition beat us to market?”
- Define the terms. One of the reasons decisions fail to be implemented properly is that everyone has a different view of what they agreed to. You can reduce the likelihood of this problem by asking people to define the words they are using. “We all agree that we need to increase the accountability in our leadership ranks by having more consequences. What do we mean by consequences?”
- Imagine the implications. Help your team take their thinking one or two steps further by probing about the impact of your proposed decision. “Ok, I think this plan makes sense. If we roll that out in the summer, where do we expect peak production? How will that play out?”
- Surface tensions. As you listen to people discuss an idea, stay attuned to subtle differences in the language they use that might suggest they aren’t fully aligned. Probe to see if you can improve their understanding. “I think I hear slightly different interpretations. Can we take another pass at what people think we’re agreeing to?”
- Highlight assumptions. One of the most dangerous things you can do in decision making is make a bunch of assumptions without even realizing. Helping your colleagues spot the suppositions on which the plan is built is very helpful. “This whole plan seems to depend on how this plays out in Michigan. What assumptions are we making about Detroit?”
- Make room for dissent. Sometimes you can’t think of something specific to add to improve the quality of the discussion and the decision. In that case, make space for someone else’s concerns. “What are we missing here? What holes could someone find in this approach? If someone in Finance were to critique this plan, what would they say?”
Just because you understand the value of having a little more productive conflict to help your team make better decisions, that doesn’t mean your enlightenment will be appreciated by conflict avoidant colleagues. Don’t start with the most contentious issue you’ve been burying for months. That’s like starting your healthy eating resolution by going from a double cheeseburger with bacon to a big giant bran muffin. No, your team isn’t ready for that.
Instead, start by sprinkling a little disagreement into your ongoing discussions.
Don’t start with a big conflict muffin, start by sprinkling a little conflict on your Captain Crunch.