13th August 2015

Three Ways To Keep Conflict Healthy

We have previously noticed how it is not the absence of conflict that is so important but the nature of the conflict that matters.Great teams are not those teams from which conflict is absent. Great teams are characterised by lots of conflict; by lots of healthy conflict.

Healthy conflict is positive, perhaps even therapeutic. Healthy conflict leads to lively and impassioned debate. During healthy debate we are able to put all of our cards on the table and leave no question unasked and no stone unturned. We are all able to find our voice and to our passion and speak up for what we believe to be important. The real justification for being able to do all of this in the first place is that the result of healthy conflict is likely to be a result or a decision which has been fully and frankly debated and which is not only a better answer but a solution that individuals can unreservedly buy into.

For conflict to be healthy certain conditions must pre-exist.

1. Trust. Here, by trust I refer to what Pat Lencioni calls ‘vulnerability based trust’ in his book “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team”. In other words the ability to be vulnerable in front of the others. If any one of the parties has too big an ego to risk not winning the point, the conflict will be prejudiced from the start. Full and free debate will take second place to maintaining status. All parties need to be able to trust that others will not exploit the potential vulnerability that can come from speaking their own truth as they see it.

2. Respect. All parties need to be able to respect each other’s differences and understand that each of us is as entitled to our opinions as the next person. Strength comes from a diversity of opinion and viewpoint. Comments and debate therefore should be directed at the subject under debate, not at the individuals. Personal opinions, slurs and accusations will destroy any respect and quickly turn conflict unhealthy and unhelpful.

3. Absence of Judgement. Having a different opinion does not make a person bad, or good, just different. The ability to observe and listen without making a personal judgement will allow us to hear the argument free from the noise of opinion and prejudice and allow us to see the argument in an impersonal and balanced way. There is no good or bad, only choices. As William Shakespeare once said “for there is nothing either good or
bad, but thinking makes it so”

When these three conditions are present, and they will need to be managed, then conflict can be healthy and productive. It can be enjoyable and invigorating. When the health of a teams’ debate can be maintained we are able to benefit from all of the positives that conflict can bring us.

Conflict is inevitable, particularly among passionate capable people who are fully engaged in the business. Make sure that the conflict is healthy and your business will be able to reap the rewards of even better decision making.