With the launch of my new book, The Good Fight, only a couple of weeks away, I’ve been talking with a lot of people about conflict. The conversation often goes something like,
“I’m launching a new book.”
“Oh, cool, what’s it about?”
“Why your organization needs more conflict.”
“More conflict, what?!? I think we already have more than we need.”
“Actually, my guess is that it’s because the team isn’t working through conflicts early, quickly, and calmly that your team is stuck with unhealthy, personal, unproductive conflict simmering below the surface all the time.”
(Scrunched up Face. Gradual look of recognition. Slow nodding of head.)
“Ooooooh, now that you put it that way, I agree. We definitely don’t have enough of that kind of conflict.”
The conversation naturally shifts to how to make a change for the better. My answer is to start small. A conflict avoidant culture is not going to respond well if you start picking fights in your next meeting. Instead, start using these low impact techniques to introduce a little tension here and there. Over time, you can build up to using them more frequently. They will be your entrée to a healthier conflict culture.
Try one or more of these in your next conversation:
- Test the facts. As people introduce 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?” If you get a good response, great. If you don’t, you don’t necessarily need to follow-up. Just asking the question will draw attention to the lack of support for the point and make it more likely that there will be more rigor next time.
- Explore a different side. If the conversation is focused on one aspect of the problem, shed light on a different angle. “You’ve done a good job at making this program simple. What could we do to make it sticky?” Building from the strength of one team member’s contribution is a positive way to show that the optimal answer probably requires that you balance a few different tensions.
- 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?” One of the most common but misunderstood sources of healthy conflict on teams is that different roles often represent different stakeholders. By making that advocacy more explicit, you can keep the conflict more constructive.
- 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?” This form of productive conflict goes a long way to identifying and mitigating risks inherent in a plan—one of the most important roles for conflict in a healthy team.
- 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?” If you’re concerned that the plan might have an unintended negative consequence, drawing attention to the issue with a question is very direct (which is good) but low intensity. It can be a more effective approach than criticizing the plan outright.
- 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?” Often, this level of alignment is skipped in service of expedience (busy, busy, busy!). Unfortunately, failing to get aligned up-front means delays, rework, and frustration afterward. Do everyone a favor and sort these things out up front.
- 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?” The more you make offering a contrasting opinion seem like a favor, the more likely it is that someone will have the courage to speak up.
When you’re ready to introduce more healthy conflict onto your team, don’t start with the most contentious issue you’ve been burying for months. Instead, work toward a high frequency of low impact conflicts like the ones on this list. Take it slow, adding only one or two in any given discussion. Then ramp it up over time.
Ok, one more public service announcement. The Good Fight is out on March 26th. Until then, if you pre-order the book, you’ll get valuable bonus tools (assessment, handbook, worksheets) that you can use to build a productive conflict habit on your team. I don’t want anyone in the ChangeYourTeam community to miss out. Find all the details here.
Thanks for your continued support. The messages I’ve received from so many of you who have been loyal readers are keeping my energy high through all the work of the book launch. Please keep them coming! It’s also SUPER helpful if you share these posts on LinkedIn, so that more people will see them.
I’m so glad that you enjoy the blog and I can’t wait to bring you more thoughtful and practical content to help you ChangeYourTeam in the future.
Hear Me Tell the Good Fight Story
I’ve been doing several podcasts lately to share the message that the world needs more conflict. The interviews have been fun. Have a listen to one of these…
Dear HBR… the Harvard Business Review podcast where I answer listeners questions about trust
Leadership Happy Hour…a fun and wide-ranging conversation about conflict