Essentials of Team Performance: Healthy Conflict

(This is the second in a series of five articles about building high-performance teams.)

Most organizations and teams would benefit from more conflict. Yes, you read that correctly! Teams and organizations typically work hard to avoid conflict. They strive to create an artificial harmony where no one says a critical word and every idea is a good one.

In fact, “healthy conflict” is a necessary component for team and organizational performance. Healthy conflict is debate. It is productive and moves the team forward. Healthy conflict is the ability to openly and honestly discuss ideas, issues, and action — not destructive conflict that is nasty, personal, and mean-spirited. Healthy conflict is not the type of conflict that requires conflict resolution.

The ability to engage in healthy conflict is built on a foundation of vulnerability-based trust. Read more in Arden Coaching’s article, “Essentials of Team Performance: Trust.” Vulnerability-based trust allows the team to discuss ideas and issues fully and select the best one as quickly as possible. When team members trust each other, they know that, no matter how passionately they discuss a topic, everyone on the team believes that everyone is trying to do the right thing and arrive at the best solution possible. “Without vulnerability-based trust,” says Patrick Lencioni, “conflict becomes politics; I’m trying to manipulate you to win.”

Imagine an all-too-typical scenario in which a team is avoiding conflict. Someone suggests an idea. The idea is not a very good one, but team members nod appreciatively, thank the person for their contribution, and move the meeting forward. At every team meeting the person again suggests the idea. At every meeting the team responds in the same way. Over time, pressure builds. There’s unhealthy back-channel conversation between individual team members about how terrible the idea is, and it begins to get personal: “It’s a lousy idea; he’s an idiot.” Finally, the pot boils over and conflict around the issue quickly becomes a personal attack — mean-spirited, and public.

The team moved along the conflict spectrum from one unproductive extreme — conflict avoidance and artificial harmony — to the other — bad-tempered, mean-spirited arguing.

What does healthy conflict look like?

The appearance of healthy conflict will be different based on cultural differences — team culture, organizational culture, and even societal norms.

  • What is critically important is that everyone needs to be confident that no one on the team is holding back. As Lencioni puts it, “that no one is calculating the cost of disagreeing.”
  • Healthy conflict exists in the middle of the spectrum, just on the constructive side of the mid-point. Debate and discussion centers around ideas, issues, and action steps, not the individual.
  • Healthy conflict is founded on a trust-based point of view where every individual team member believes, “For the team to win, we need the best idea to win.”

Arden Coaching president Maren Perry illustrates these points. “Imagine that ideas or recommendations are ‘gladiators.’ The gladiators step into the arena and are thoroughly and honestly debated. The ideas are fighting to the death: not the people who brought the ideas to the arena, but the ideas themselves. The people are in the stands. You may be the ‘sponsor’ of a gladiator, but the gladiators are duking it out. The best idea wins. All the people survive and no one gets hurt!”

The ability to exercise healthy conflict and debate the merits of an idea passionately, in an environment of vulnerability-based trust, is a crucial ingredient for extraordinary team performance.

Arden Coaching is an authorized partner of The Five Behaviors of a Cohesive Team™ program. Based on Patrick Lencioni’s Five Behaviors model, The Five Behaviors of a Cohesive Team™ program is a proven set of assessment and team-building tools that has become the most widely used process for effective team development globally.

To learn more about developing your team’s performance, executive coaching, and leadership training contact us at [email protected] or 646.844.2233.