Get into conflict


“Wow, that was a pretty hard discussion”, i said to the team lead.

“How do you mean?”, she replied.

“Well, the discussion between the other team lead and you. The sparks flew off.”

“No, not at all,” she said, “it’s a normal debate. After the meeting we’re back to normal, there are no hard feelings left.”

It puzzled me and only after a few years, i finally know what she meant.

Engaging in passionate debates, having tough discussions and committing to something you first didn’t agree too. These are all signs of a healthy team. Getting the climate suited for healthy conflict and intimate debate is only possible when team members trust each other. When team members trust each other, they will fully engage. They will share their honest opinions and there is no politics involved.

It is possible that their wants are not implemented, but they’re sure the others listened to their opinion and arguments, and finally the group came to the conclusion not to opt for them. After the meeting there are no hard feelings, there’s no talk behind the scenes, there are no opinions not expressed. A team that comes to a agreement this way, will have team members that commit to the decision. Also if the decision is not what they hoped for, but they know the group heard all arguments, considered them and made the best choice.

It’s only possible when your team is working at a certain maturity. According to the “5 dysfunctions of a team” book of Patrick Lencioni the only thing you need for this is trust and open communication. And conflict of course.

A team that has healthy conflict will make more effective decisions and outperform other teams in the long run.

Signs of teams not having healthy conflict

  • No questions are asked, no opinions are given.
  • Real opinions are expressed outside of the meeting room.
  • Sub-teams form.
  • Politics and turf wars rule.
  • Decisions are not committed too.

How to stimulate conflict?

It’s maybe a strange title, but if healthy conflict can be so constructive and effective, how can we stimulate it our organization?

  • Train management and the work floor on giving feedback.
  • Focus on opinions, not people.
  • As a team lead, allow discussion. Only intervene when things get out of hand or too personal.
  • Walk the talk as team lead: give the example to your team and allow criticism, also on your behalf.
  • Repeat the decisions at the end of the meeting. Does everybody agree on them? If not, the discussion must be reopened.

Additional reading

Margaret Heffernan on conflict: http://www.ted.com/talks/margaret_heffernan_dare_to_disagree.html

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