The Right Kind of Conflict

Imagine for a moment your team walking away actually feeling excited about having had a conflict. Or, better yet, there’s a contentious issue on the agenda — and people show up early, excited to tackle the problem.

Fantasy, you say? No one likes conflict, you say?

It’s no wonder. Relationship expert John Gottman says 69% of all conflict is unsolvable, so maybe you’re right. And if you are, how could anyone walk into a conflict enthusiastic if they only have a 1 in 3 chance of finding a solution?

So that’s the question, isn’t it? How do we lead people in such a way that when they go home at night (or when they walk away from that team Zoom call), they are thrilled to be able to tell their spouse/partner/roommate:

“We had this huge conflict! Huge debate! And it was the best. Day. Ever! 

“Wow!” says their partner. “So you won, huh?”

“Hell no! In the end, my idea sucked. But it helped lead to the solution — and I had as much airtime and validity as everyone else. I mean, we really talked, AND we really listened. And yeah, things got a little heated at times, because we’re passionate about making the right decision, but no one ever took it personally. No one attacked anyone personally. It was amazing!”  

Imagine if that was the conversation, instead of the bad days we keep rehashing.

“My boss doesn’t listen to me; my peers laugh at me; I was so angry… so humiliated… so _____”  

Which version does your leadership style allow those you lead to tell with their lives? 

In reality, it’s not whether we get our way; it’s whether we feel connected, honored, and respected in the process.

I would go so far as to argue that we want conflict, because it sharpens us. It pushes us to think deeper, to question our position and grow our thinking muscles. We want to have the kind of conflict where we walk away feeling good about it! It’s about problem solving; nothing personal.

Just because my idea isn’t used doesn’t mean I’m stupid, or that I should have to fear being fired. Patrick Lencioni says positive conflict leads to positive accountability, and I’ve written about accountability in a number of previous blog posts. Accountability, like conflict, is so often seen as a negative; aggressive, punishing, win-lose, rather than problem-solving and collaborative. Positive accountability keeps your team members from seeing themselves as bad people just because they are struggling. It keeps them from getting defensive and helps them feel supported.

So how do you turn adversity into real growth? 

  • Diligently stick to the idea that conversations are about issues, not people — focus exclusively on solving the problem.
  • Be relentless at calling people back to positivity when they slip into blame and attack mode.
  • Notice when players are quiet, and ask them directly what they think.
  • Give the team permission to hold you, the leader, accountable to these rules as well.
  • Remind them of the rules and goals at the beginning of each meeting.
  • Invite them to provide positive feedback to other contributions, which is not the same as agreeing with them.
  • Give permission to disagree with respect.
  • Forbid the use of judgement words; discuss what works and doesn’t work in shared ideas rather then labeling them as stupid or brilliant. “What I love about Mary’s suggestion is…”  “What concerns me about this idea is….”
  • Rinse and repeat.

As a leader, you are fighting generations of momentum — the evolutionary power of the reptilian part of our brain wants to fight, flight or freeze. Those changes don’t happen with one attempt.  They happen over time with consistent repetition. In the process, you will have bad days after weeks of good. That’s not a bad sign; it just means you went deeper, and it’s time to reinforce the commitment.


-Steven

Photo by Dylan Gillis on Unsplash