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Conflict is good, conflict is healthy and conflict creates results

    We are used to thinking of conflicts as something negative. But what if we achieve much better results when professional conflicts are welcome in the team?

    The healthy professional conflict is fundamental to innovation, learning and quality. And so it is part of your job to engage in professional conflicts in your team, or, if you are the leader, to help create an environment in which professional conflict is welcomed. 

    As part of a team we must offer our perspective, our competencies and our ideas. Because only by doing so, we prevent group think and supports the joint creation of results. Even if you disagree with your colleagues. Especially if you disagree with your colleagues. Because conflict is good, conflict is healthy and conflict creates results.

    So what exactly do we mean by professional conflict? Professional conflict is the unfiltered, constructive debate about ideas, made possible by the vulnerability and trust created by the team. Think about the conflict as energy, and energy goes where we direct it. This means that if we consider the conflict as a portion of constructive energy and direct it towards the result we would like to achieve, we make it more likely that we will get better and faster results.

    Yes, ok, you say, easier said than done. And you would be right. Because as with any other behaviour, it takes time and focus to become good at having constructive, professional conflicts.

    New behaviour: To welcome conflict

    To welcome conflict in the team, we need to control our fight/flight instinct and instead containing the conflict and thus reaping the fruits of it

    Human defence mechanisms are designed to protect us from discomfort. But learning and development depend on us not running away from the unpleasant situations or fighting against them.

    Because without conflict, no development, poorer quality, poorer results, poorer working environment – yes, indeed, poorer working environment. You want conflict and discussion in your team because it makes you better able to achieve joint results. 

    So how do you do that? The most important tools are curiosity and asking questions and talking openly about the elephant(s) in the room. Your job as a leader is to guide the professional conflict so that everyone (including yourself) can endure being part of it. So lets look at what a professional conflict is – and what it is not.

    Not an argument

    A professional conflict is not an argument, but a bold exchange of views, a passionate discussion, an excited exchange of opinions, which takes place in a psychologically safe space, i.e. a space where you can fail, where you can disagree about the tasks, where you can share your crazy ideas without fearing retribution.

    “Conflict is simply the energy created by the gap between what we want and what we’re experiencing,”

    says Nate Regier, a former practicing psychologist and author of Conflict Without Casualties (Berrett-Koehler, 2017). “If we define conflict as energy that’s created by the gap, then the real question is ‘How are we going to use that energy?’ ”

    Workplace conflict occurs when there’s a disagreement amongst employees due to opposing interests, personalities, beliefs, or ideas. Conflict in the workplace is natural and bound to occur when you have people of different backgrounds and perspectives working side-by-side. But we can use this in a positive way.

    It is understandable that we try to avoid conflict considering all of the drama and negative fallout that always seems to accompany it. But if we use conflict correctly, we can use it to create. The alternative to struggling against people is to “struggle with them”. That’s what the professional conflict is all about.

    I, alone, know the answer

    This is an example of how to manage what we call a professional conflict:

    Two programmers have a heated discussion about the best method for making a new feature. The discussion takes place in the team meeting. They are both convinced that their method is the only correct one and they are not interested in the other’s perspective. i.e. their egos are practically screaming. On top of that, the rest of the team does not get a chance to chip in. Chances are, that one of the programmers “win”. The solution then becomes a one-person solution instead of an 8-person solution.

    How do you, as a leader, get the best out of this conflict and secure a solution that is the result of the team’s collective effort? Well, first of all you can remind the rest of the team that you are a team. You can pause the discussion with a question to the whole team: “What do the rest of you say?” In this way, the two programmers get a breather to think, and the team brings all its skills into play. 

    Another thing you can do is say out loud what everyone is thinking: “I can hear you disagreeing about the method. It’s super cool, because it gives us the opportunity to get an even better result. Can’t you each just write the most important points on the board here so everyone can discuss?” 

    What you are doing here is that you are stating that there is a professional conflict and that it is a good thing, and you are asking questions curiously in order to get as many angles as possible on the problem for the benefit of the joint result.

    We understand conflict differently

    The understanding of conflict and what we perceive as a conflict is personal, behavioural and cultural. What I perceive as conflict may be something completely different for you, John, Allessandra, or Hassan.

    Therefore discussing some guidelines or ground rules for how to disagree is an important step in becoming a team in which conflict is welcome.

    Because even though we understand and define conflict differently, the professional conflict is never a drama. The professional conflict must be kept just that, professional. And yes, it can feel personal if someone criticises your idea, but that’s where the open, honest and trusting culture comes in.

    We often keep quiet in team work because we don’t want to appear troublesome, stupid, ignorant or inattentive, but when we do, we rob the team of essential knowledge and input.

    We must understand how to use diversity in the team. This means, among other things, that we must make room for the different ways each team member prefers to speak. There are some of us who prefer to think before we speak, and some who prefer to think while we speak. And one is neither better nor more valuable than the other, but often the discussions are over before all the input is on the table. It leads to an experience of not being heard, that one’s input is not appreciated or uninteresting.

    The good news

    Paradoxically, the price of diversity is constant stress and discomfort. Diversity means differences and differences mean conflict.

    The good news is that conflict can be trained and that there are more benefits than just better results. It is also significantly better for the team’s overall intelligence and well-being if we work to allow professional conflicts in our teams.

    Differences between people have the potential for both problems and better outcomes. It is common to think that differences create problems, but since people act in interaction with others and thus do not act the same in all constellations, you cannot box the differences in and address them in opposition to each other.

    It is extremely exhausting to be in conflict. Our brain is lazy and will constantly try to stabilise the system so that we do not have to use unnecessary energy. So we are up against strong forces from our brain, which works incessantly to optimise energy.

    So when we talk about new thinking, readiness for change, innovation and other words that indicate that we need something different from what we usually do, the brain puts its fingers in its ears and goes: “Lalalalalala”

    Keep out the drama

    But as we said, it can be trained. As with any other behaviour, it takes time and focus to become good at having constructive, professional conflicts. Though not an exhaustive list, we have below a couple of helpful suggestions on how to train being comfortable with the professional conflict as a team:

    • Talk openly about any conflict, e.g.: “I can hear that you two does not agree on this. Should we get some perspectives from the other team members?”
    • Always challenge assumptions, e.g.: “It seems like you are assuming X about this problem. Have you checked whether it is actually so?”
    • Always encourage team member to talk with and not about one another, e.g.: “I can hear you think John is cross with you – have you asked him?”

    It takes a great deal of courage to become comfortable with conflict, but the benefits are enormous. Amy Edmonson, author of The Fearless Organization, identifies the consequences of not speaking up for fear of reprisal. “Silence in today’s economic environment is deadly. Silence means good ideas and possibilities don’t bubble up, and problems don’t get addressed. Silence stymies teaming”.

    So keep out the drama, but welcome the professional conflicts. Your team and your stakeholders will thank you.


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