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Let’s Hear It for Conflict

If everybody’s playing nice on your team and there’s never any conflict, chances are nothing much is getting done. In an exclusive interview, Ted Harro explains that if team members aren’t fighting on occasion and having really strong discussions, they’re probably just dancing around the issues and lying to each other about how good things are.

 

Ted Harro is the founder of Noonday Ventures (www.noondayventures.com). He has helped implement plans for a variety of well-known organizations in technology, industrial, professional services, and nonprofit environments in the U.S. and Western Europe. He also provides leadership coaching for a select group of senior and emerging leaders. Harro spoke with AMA recently for an Edgewise podcast. The following is an edited version of that interview.

AMA: You’ve said something really provocative: “If a team isn’t fighting from time to time, the team members are probably lying to each other too much.” Can you elaborate on that?
Ted Harro: I got that opinion by talking with a client who told me that he was working for a new CEO. He was complaining about that boss, as we all do sometimes, but he said, “You know, I don’t really like her because we don’t fight enough.”

And I sat back and thought, “What?” Because usually we complain when we do fight with our bosses. But the more I thought about it, I realized he was right, because the only reason to be on a team is to get stuff done that individual members can’t get done on their own. And that’s true whether you’re on a senior leadership team or you’re on a team anywhere in the organization. Being on a team means making decisions—about where to go or about how to get stuff done, or where to spend money and resources. And unless you have a genius on the team who can get all the right answers all the time, you’re going to have to debate those questions. That usually leads to conflict—and it’s good conflict. It’s conflict we ought to have.

So my thesis is that if you aren’t fighting on occasion and having really strong discussions, you’re probably just dancing around the issues and lying to each other about how good things are.

AMA: How can a team use conflict to arrive at a good decision while avoiding a situation where the conflict is just circular and you don’t really resolve anything?
TH: If we’re going to get stuff done, we’re have to have debates. Those debates are actually really useful in terms of getting stuff done, if we can think of them more as negotiations and deliberations, instead of just fights, like food fights.

Think of it as trying to help the team accomplish more. It’s kind of like lifting weights: you want to try to build the muscle over time by having some smaller conflicts, and then eventually you can really deal with the big decisions that might lead to bigger and more energetic debates over time. So it, it’s really a necessary part of helping that team perform really well and achieve great results.

AMA: What you say makes sense. So why don’t we hear more stories of teams actually doing that?
TH: My guess from talking to lots of team leaders and team members is that people are just flat-out afraid of it. Team leaders are worried that if they really have the debate that needs to be had, they’re going to lose control, or they’re going to end up blowing the team apart. And that could become a career-limiting move for them. So team leaders want to keep the lid on the kettle. Team members are often afraid that if they really say what they think, they’re going to create enemies or they’re going to get themselves fired. So there’s a tacit agreement among people that “I won’t rock the boat if you don’t rock the boat, and we’ll just kind of get along until we move on to a different team.” But of course you don’t actually get stuff done then; you’re just dancing around the issues.

AMA: What advice can you give to a team leader to ensure that the conflict you want his or her team to have is actually productive?
TH: I’d say three things. First, prepare for the conflict long before it happens. As soon as you’re shaping your team up and trying to get them to start dealing with tough issues, study your team members. Think through what really matters to them and what their hot buttons are. Then start instilling ground rules for how you relate to each other, before you have tension in the room. Build relationships between people so that they see themselves not just as colleagues or names on an organizational chart, but as real people.

Second, pick the right fights. You want to pick stuff that’s important enough that it’s going to be worthwhile, but not so much of a stretch for people that it’s going to cause the team to break.

Third, make sure the fights you have—especially the first few—are as constructive as possible. And that’s usually all about making sure everybody understands: here’s the decision we have to make, here’s how we’re going to make it. Are we going to make it where we all get a vote, or are we going to make it where you all make a pitch to me and then I’m going to make the decision? Get really clear on rules and roles, and then enforce the ground rules.

As a leader, if you can prepare people for it, pick the right fights, and make those fights—especially the early ones—as constructive as possible, you have a good chance of the debates and fights leading to really good decisions.

AMA: When does good conflict go bad? How much is too much?
TH: I’ve seen it. I remember being with a client once where they had a conflict that didn’t go well—and by didn’t go well, I mean instead of just saying, “I disagree with your ideas,” people started to get really personal about it. It went from “I disagree on our direction,” or even, “I disagree on how you’re doing your job,” to, “I disagree that you’re actually a good, trustworthy, kind of good people.”

When it gets personal like that, it is really hard to pull that back. So team members and team leaders need to really pay attention to not letting a conflict get to the point of a personal attack, either explicitly in the room or out in the hallway. Because once you get there, it, it takes a lot of time and energy to get that team to become productive again.

You can learn more about managing conflict and leading teams in these AMA seminars:
Responding to Conflict

Dealing with Conflict in Your Team

Collaborative Leadership Skills for Managers