Most of us prefer an easy life, a life that is free from argument anger and conflict. Most of us would prefer to inhabit a place where we keep conflict at bay, preferring a quiet and respectful calm to an upsetting and unsettling turmoil. So it follows then that in creating our ideal place of work and in framing the ideal team we choose to work with we might feel the need to seek an absence of conflict. Indeed we may even have an absence of conflict as one of the markers of a great team.
Intuitively I understand this point of view but this is one of those occasions where our intuition can lead us astray. Peter Senge wrote in his excellent book ‘The Fifth Discipline’, “Contrary to popular myth, great teams are not characterised by an absence of conflict. On the contrary, in my experience, one of the most reliable indicators of a team that is continually learning is the visible conflict of ideas. In great teams conflict becomes productive”There are three reasons why you might want to welcome conflict and to see it as a positive rather than a negative.
1. Conflict and passion are very closely related and nothing great was ever achieved without passion. When passion is present it shows that people really care about the subject under discussion. It means that their heart, their spirit is engaged in the debate and wouldn’t you rather have passionate people on your team?
2. Conflict means that people are prepared to defend their standpoint, their view and their opinions against the opinions of others and often to do so in a vigorous manner. Whatever the outcome of that conflict the overall effect is likely to be a better, more thought out, more thought through and debated outcome than one on which everyone had just rolled over and accepted without the necessary debate.
3. Properly constituted and carried out conflict means that everybody will have had chance to have their say and to be heard and because everyone has had chance and been encouraged to weigh in, they are more likely to buy in to the final decision. Commitment is more likely to be the result of healthy conflict than of people avoiding conflict and biting their tongue.
Perhaps you can now see how our intuitive response to welcome the absence of conflict is not so helpful in the formation of a cohesive team as we might have initially thought. Of course not all conflict is created equal and there is a huge difference between healthy and unhealthy conflict. The challenge then becomes not one of avoiding conflict but one of maintaining an environment that encourages healthy conflict.