Conflict is good!

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I listened recently to Patrick Lencioni of ‘The Advantage’ and ‘Five Dysfunctions of a Team’ fame and was reminded how important conflict is in organisations.

Think about a time you have left a meeting energised, passionate and in that wonderful, productive ‘let’s go do it’ frame of mind.  It may have come because you were all truly, authentically on the same page.  But more often it is because there has been a degree of conflict which has needed working through: strong views aired, differences debated, options discussed and then a way forward emerges which is strong, robust and has been well tested in the room.  And perhaps even that ‘elephant in the room’ was aired and shared!

But how often do we go out of our way to avoid conflict? We have all come out of a meeting and said “Good meeting; no discussions needed; we’re all on the same page”  and then gone and continued the conversation as it either felt unresolved or just not a good enough way forward?  How often do you feel you, and others, are biting their tongue rather than saying what they really believe?  Those ‘elephants’ remain unspoken!

Great organisations are built on passion.  Great meetings are characterised by passionate debate.  They are characterised by openness and candour.  The energy is palpable.  Yes, you don’t all agree but you are all listening and sharing.

But openness and candour are difficult in the traditional business environment. And as Lencioni says, you can’t build openness and honesty without trust.  And trust cannot truly be built without vulnerability.  When was the last time you showed, and shared your vulnerability at work?  Or the last time your team colleagues laid themselves open?  Bill George “Leadership is a total sum of who you are.” To be authentic, you need to show your vulnerability.  Letting others see your vulnerability is not the same as being weak.  A strong leader will share his or her mistakes and be open to learning, a great role model for the rest of the business.

So how can you create openness and candour?  How can you build trust?

  1. First and very simply, get to know people; build relationships both within, and outside your team. It is difficult to have open, robust conversations with people you don’t know.  Focus on individuals you know less well or feel are ‘different’ from you.
  2. Hold a team session where you get to know each other. There are many ways of doing this but a simple exercise (thanks again to Patrick) is to share where you grew up, where you are in the order with your siblings and what was the biggest challenge you faced in your childhood: the stories that you will hear are a powerful reminder of what we keep hidden: childhood months if not years in hospital and multiple operations because of heart problems; surviving on handouts and food from supermarket bins are just two of the stories I have heard.
  3. Again in your team/s, use a profiling tool such as MBTI or Insights as a way to talk about your own weaknesses. Sharing these in pairs, asking for support on the areas where you are less strong will build trust amongst you.  “I know from my profile I am great at process but not so strong on adopting new ideas.  Can you flag up when I am stuck in the ‘let’s stick to what we know works’ groove.”
  4. Understand your own and your team’s reaction to conflict. The Thomas-Kilmann conflict mode instrument helps individuals understand how they react in situations of conflict.  It gives you a deeper insight how you, and your colleagues behave in difficult situations.  Insight and understanding are key to accepting, working with and making an advantage of the differences.
  5. Bring someone in to run some team coaching sessions … either from your HR team if you have trained team coaches or an external.
  6. Read Patrick Lencioni’s books: ‘The Five Dysfunctions of a team’ and ‘The Advantage’


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