You probably have too little conflict on your team. Does that sound strange? Even counterproductive? Most leaders spend a good amount of energy trying to minimize conflict on their teams. But they should actually try to generate conflict.
Before going further, let me be clear that by conflict I do not mean insults, passive aggression, and fistfights. That kind of conflict isn’t useful. What I’m talking about is constructive conflict in the form of productive disagreement—sometimes vehement disagreement.
Conflict of all kinds is something that most of us try to avoid. But it is not an overstatement to say that conflict is an engine of human progress. Humans make sense of the world together by trying different things until we come upon the best solution to whatever problem it is we are trying to solve. This process inevitably—and necessarily—involves conflict.
Conflict, in this sense, is fundamental to how teams work together to solve problems. Optimally, our teams bring a diversity of thought and experience to offer solutions in different ways and with varying perspectives. We then wrestle with these different approaches. We advocate for an approach, we disagree, and we listen and learn. In other words, we engage in challenge and conflict.
Given this reality, it makes no sense for team leaders to eliminate all conflict and disagreement. Rather, leaders should encourage it and create the circumstances where constructive conflict can flourish.
In the many years that I have observed teams, I have noticed that teams that do not engage in challenge and conflict do not achieve the best outcomes. They might produce acceptable outcomes, but often not optimal ones. Lack of challenge and conflict on teams generally points to one of two, or both, dysfunctions—disinterest and fear.
DisinterestChallenge and conflict can be uncomfortable. When teams engage in unimportant work, or work that the team perceives is unimportant, they will often disengage. At this point then, why would they wish to engage in challenging each other, wasting precious time in their day over issues lacking in meaning? They will usually just nod along and accept whatever direction requires the least effort.
And so, if you want to promote a “challenge culture” on your team, you must ensure that the work the team is engaged in is actually important and that the team recognizes it as such. When people are engaged in work that matters to them, they naturally want to offer their perspectives and advocate for them. In this light, framing important work and actively recruiting people to that work is a critical, and often overlooked, leadership skill.
FearThe second dysfunction that inhibits challenge and conflict on a team is fear. Challenge and conflict necessarily entail disagreement and not just disagreement between peers. Leaders sometimes have a difficult time when people disagree with them. They often react to disagreement in ways that shut it down and cause people to be fearful of offering a different perspective.
If leaders want a high-performing team, they must abandon the idea that disagreement is threatening, disrespectful, or diminishing to their position. Leaders must embrace the idea that they do not have all the answers and may not be the smartest person in the room. The reason you have a team, optimally, is precisely because you don’t have all the answers. When teams work well, disagreements, challenges, and conflicts spur innovation and ideas that cannot be anticipated. There is magic in this. When leaders shut down disagreement, they shut down the very purpose of the team.
It is important that leaders purposefully build conflict into how their teams work. Here are a couple of things that leaders can do right away to begin generating a challenge culture that uses conflict to get the best outcomes:
- Model constructive conflict by simply asking, “Why is this a bad idea?” Doing so overtly gives permission for people to challenge ideas.
- Normalize disagreement and provide clear permission for people to voice it. When people disagree constructively, reward them. Thank them for their opinion and their perspective.
- Engage with the alternate opinion. Do not punish people for disagreement.