I used to regularly get feedback indicating that “Bill doesn’t like conflict”. Well, I’m not sure many people really like conflict, but I do know that if you avoid situations because you don’t want to deal with conflict due to a lack of leadership courage it can result in other problems. In fact, Patrick Lencioni has written that the fear of conflict is almost always a sign of problems.
On the other hand, healthy conflict can be a good thing. I’ve been helped in this area by Lencioni and his books The Five Dysfunctions of a Team and The Advantage. These are two of the most helpful books I’ve read (and re-read), and discussed with others, and I refer to them often.
A trait of a cohesive leadership team (and any team), according to Lencioni is that team members regularly engage in productive, unfiltered conflict around important issues.
Although we have a natural tendency to avoid conflict, here are 4 ways in which conflict can actually be your friend:
- It drives us to better results. We have to start with trust. We need trust to have healthy ideological conflict, or conflict around ideas, as opposed to unhealthy and unproductive personality driven conflict. Lencioni has written that if we don’t trust one another, then we aren’t going to engage in open, constructive, ideological conflict. However when there is trust, conflict becomes nothing but the pursuit of truth, an attempt to find the best possible answer. Having healthy conflict around ideas, proposals, direction, etc. will help insure that we ultimately arrive at better solutions. Have you seen better results when you engage in open and healthy conflict around ideas?
- It builds stronger teams. I’ve been on teams where ideological conflict was seen as disloyalty as the leader was trying to build consensus with the group. This leads to what Lencioni refers to as “artificial harmony”, and he says that this is particularly seen in churches where people have the misguided idea that they cannot be frustrated or disagreeable with one another. He writes that what team members are actually doing is confusing being nice with being kind. Instead, we should feel compelled to respectfully disagree with one another when we see things differently. If done properly this will lead to team members having greater respect for each other, and help to avoid destructive conflict later on if the discussion doesn’t take place. Have you had experiences where teams have become stronger as a result of engaging in healthy conflict?
- It results in greater commitment to decisions. Lencioni has written that conflict is so important that a team cannot achieve commitment without it. He tells us that when there has been no conflict where team members can express their different opinions it becomes nearly impossible for team members to truly commit to a decision. Have you been involved in situations where team members appeared to agree to a decision in a meeting, but then didn’t support the decision later? Lencioni refers to this unhealthy behavior as “passive sabotage”.
- It helps leaders to grow. I often tell people that I am rarely the smartest person in the room. I’m not being humble when I say that. I work with very talented people, and I respect the knowledge and experience they bring to the team. A leader needs to demonstrate vulnerability and create an environment in which ideological conflict is encouraged. For example, the leader may have to break a tie if the team can’t come to consensus on a decision, but a mature leader should let all team members provide their input before that takes place. That takes maturity and someone who is not on a power trip. Have you grown as a leader by letting your team engage in conflict around your ideas?
Do you agree that healthy conflict around ideas is a good thing? What are some examples of healthy conflict that you have seen?