“I think my team is about here on the conflict scale,” the CEO said, drawing an x on the whiteboard.
We had been discussing his leadership team and how he needed them to perform at a higher level if the company was going to achieve its next level of performance and make the impact he dreamed of in the world. The topic of comfort with conflict had come up.
The CEO had put his mental model about conflict on the whiteboard, a simple continuum moving from a group that avoided conflict on one extreme to those itching for a fight on the other extreme. Intuitively, this CEO was arguing for a Golden Mean where people are transparent and comfortable with conflict. His company is based in the Midwest, so it came as no surprise that he placed the majority of his team in the conflict avoiding space on the line.
The question hanging over this whole conversation: why does a team’s comfort with conflict matter? Are people who value conflict just sociopaths disguised in business casual attire?
If you work together long enough, you’ll fight for a variety of reasons.
- You may disagree on what to do. This is task conflict.
- You may disagree on how to do something – or how someone should do their job. This is process or role conflict.
- You may just dislike or distrust someone else. You may pick a fight for fun or to score political points. This is personal conflict.
All great teams welcome the first two kinds of conflict. They see them for what they are, tremendous opportunities to advance the shared agenda of the team. They understand what’s behind these conflicts and how to make them productive.
Productive teams know that task and process conflicts are decisions in disguise. Since a leadership team is the sum of its decisions, you could say that a leadership team is the sum of its conflicts.
Think about the decisions your leadership team has to make:
- Where are we taking the organization? Where are we not taking the organization?
- How high should we set our goals?
- Where will we allocate precious resources to run today’s business and build tomorrow’s business at the same time?
- What will we stop doing so that we have enough resources to pursue the best outcomes?
- What do we stand for as a company? What are we willing to do even if it costs us because it’s simply who we are and what we believe?
You could probably fill in another 20 decisions your team faces regularly. You should expect differences of opinion on issues of this magnitude. In fact, it would be a sign of trouble if you didn’t have any tension about these questions.
Conflict has the potential to build or erode a team’s confidence in itself.
That’s because every person on the team is constantly asking themselves a few key questions about their participation on the team.
- Am I in or out? Do people value me and my input as a colleague?
- Do I have influence on this team or am I powerless?
- Will I be able to make my best contribution as a result of this decision or will I be handcuffed?
When a leadership team does decision-making conflict well, team members answer those questions positively even if the decisions don’t always go their way. Do this regularly, and the team starts to feel as if they can take on any challenge successfully. People reinvest that little bit of extra effort into the shared work of the team. That, in turn, makes it more likely that the team is successful tackling the next decision. It’s what turns a group of individuals loosely held together by an org chart into a true team.
When decision-making and conflict break down, team members answer those same questions skeptically. Fail regularly, and the team starts to wonder if they can handle even the simplest decisions as a group. People hold back that extra effort required to make the shared work of the team successful. That, in turn, hampers the team’s ability to tackle the next challenge.
So try this experiment: List the last five decisions your leadership team faced. Note how much conflict you experienced. Flag how successful the decision process was in terms of reaching a decision supported by the team in a timely fashion. Notice how each decision affected the emotional commitment of team members.
And next time the tension is rising in your team meeting, ask yourself:
- What decision is provoking this tension?
- How do my teammates’ reactions show their level of confidence in our ability to handle this challenge?
- In what way is this decision an opportunity to build or erode our confidence in this team?
- How can I help engage the group in productive decision-making?
By all means, see conflict as decision-making in disguise. See it as an opportunity to stretch yourself personally and your team into the people – and team – you were created to be.