Remember that band you used to love in high school? You know, the one that had the best songs, but the lead singer and the drummer were always arguing? Finally they decided to split up and go their separate ways, and neither of them had a hit for the rest of their careers.
Creativity is born from conflict. You want to do something one way, and I have a different idea. Since we don’t have the time or the resources to do both, we have to choose or compromise. This isn’t a bad thing, it’s a natural part of collaboration. But a surprising number of managers believe that their job is to be a peacemaker or a problem solver, rather than someone who encourages conflict.
The teambuilding process is typically described as a four step process:
In the forming stage, everyone is polite and nice. We’re getting to know each other, so we’re all on our best behavior. But sooner or later (sooner, if you have talented people with strong opinions who want to do great work) all teams move into the storming phase. They disagree, sometimes strongly. It’s these disagreements that help teams explore each other’s expertise, get to know who’s best at what, and truly see one another clearly.
This is also where many managers freak out.
The storming phase can be disconcerting, but the manager has a critical role to play. Rather than trying to downplay the conflicts, or solve all the problems, your job as a leader is to facilitate the debate. Here are some tips for keeping things healthy, while still encouraging open dialog:
- Call It Out: Don’t try to downplay or hide it when your team disagrees, celebrate it! Make it clear that conflict is great because it means we’re on the right track to creating something awesome.
- Keep It Professional: Having a strong opinion about an issue is great. Attacking a team member on a personal level is not ok. Keep your arguments focused on the “what” not the “who”.
- Respect Different Communication Styles: Some people love to brainstorm and throw ideas up at the wall to see what sticks. Others are more process oriented. Make sure that everyone has a chance to provide input, regardless of their style. Don’t let the extroverts drown out the quieter members of the team.
- Call the Ball: After you’ve had a healthy debate, make sure you are clear about who owns the decision. Once it’s made, agree to move forward together, no matter whose solution was chosen. Everyone should have a chance to be heard, but not everyone will get their way every time.
Healthy conflict is a sign of engagement and collaboration. If your team never disagrees, you might have a significant problem.