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Conflict is often seen as a bad word, yet conflict is a necessary component of high performing teams. Part of the problem is that conflict is an overloaded word which can mean anything from simple disagreement to an all out screaming match.
Let’s get the bad type of conflict out of the way first. We’ll call it friction. Friction refers to the conflict of people, and is often based on history, personal biases and dislikes, or ulterior motives. Friction is often negatively intended, or perhaps more generously, friction has an absence of positive intention. Regardless, friction is the type of conflict we want to avoid. It drives dysfunctional team behavior and is costly to let it run wild.
The good kind of conflict can be thought of as the conflict of ideas. We’ll call this type of conflict tension, conceptually similar to any good movie has a source of tension that needs to be resolved for a positive outcome. Our teams should absolutely have the conflict of ideas when problem solving. We should each be bringing our unique insights and experiences to the table for a fair consideration. When guided by positive intention to reach the same ultimate goal, this exchange of different points of view can push all of us to create something better than we would have if left to our own devices.
I feel it’s useful to clarify the different types of conflict because I believe that many people and organizations are conflict-avoidant, but organizations with a low tolerance for conflict of ideas will ultimately reduce the height of their achievements. When there’s a low tolerance for conflict, team members stop wanting to deliver bad news or contrary ideas and it becomes easier to just declare victory instead of dealing with the tension. All of this ultimately lowers our standards.
Our organizations must embrace healthy tension to bring out our best results.
This doesn’t mean we have to fight or bicker - healthy teams can and should resolve conflict without friction. As an example, team members have commented that a colleague of mine and I always seem to agree on things. I’ve explained to them that nothing could be further from the truth. We disagree a lot, but we’ve worked together long enough that our conflict doesn’t appear to be anything other than a normal (and often quick) discussion. This is a pretty ideal state for any long-running team.
Said another way, we have a responsibility to raise our hands if we have a different point of view. Nodding in agreement with someone when you really think that their idea will never work just for the sake of “team harmony” is bad. False harmony is just as destructive and demoralizing as friction. Sometimes this can manifest in teams that profess to really like each other. I’ve seen teams go on about how great everybody is, which is a good thing up to a point. But when they go past the point of being positive to a culture of falsely avoiding disagreement they are hurting themselves.
It’s natural for human beings to disagree with each other, especially at work, especially on cross functional teams. Suppressing that doesn’t make any sense. The quality of all relationships, work or otherwise, is ultimately driven by how they handle conflict. If our teams tend to avoid conflict they will be rewarded with mediocrity.
This is why team composition is so important and warrants careful consideration. If I surround myself with people who thought like me, why would I need them? How would I get challenged and continue to grow? How would my team be anything but a monolith of singular thought? No single one of us has all the answers. We achieve excellence when we are surrounded with good teammates pushing and pulling each other to reach our best.
Seth is the CTO at Bounteous where he sets the technical strategies for both his firm and his clients, and where he coaches technical and non-technical leaders.