It’s a natural human instinct to shy away from conflict and to avoid confrontation. However, we’re often unaware that in the workplace, conflict is important: debating, even passionately, can have many positive impacts on team collaboration and overall performance. On the other hand, a fear of conflict can have devastating effects. In fact, best-selling author Pat Lencioni lists fear of conflict as one of 5 dysfunctions that can hamper team productivity (the four others being absence of trust, lack of commitment, avoidance of accountability and inattention to results).
On the road to disengagement
If we’re so afraid of conflict, it’s often because we try to spare our colleagues’ feelings; but this tendency may create a worse situation than the one we are trying to avoid. By not saying what we think on the spot, we do so much more damage than by just being honest. The main risk of shying away from conflict is disengagement. Let’s picture a team meeting during which an important decision must be made. If team members avoid conflict and refuse to disagree openly with each other, the results can be catastrophic. For one thing, the honest conversation that should have happened during the meeting will continue later on in the hallways. Furthermore, at the end of that meeting, the team won’t be able to reach a true, active commitment. Team members will be passively committed to things at best. This passive consensus leaves colleagues disengaged and uncommitted to their decisions. It’s a recipe for mediocrity and foreshadows second guessing and frustration for everyone. In the words of Pat Lencioni: if you don’t weigh in, you don’t buy in!
Is there such a thing as too much conflict?
What happens when conflict goes too far? When it gets destructive? Let’s imagine a conflict continuum: on one end is artificial harmony, where there’s no conflict at all. This isn’t because people get along well, they just avoid to disagree with each other. On the other end is destructive, mean-spirited conflict where people get openly aggressive and vicious. As a team moves down the continuum, they will have more and more constructive conflict, until they step over the line and become destructive. It’s important to recognize that in most organizations, teams are often on the “artificial harmony” side of the spectrum, because they fear destructive conflict. The goal is to get to a place where teams can have constructive conflict without ever stepping over the line. Of course, in some case, team members will go to far and become destructive, but it’s important to know that not only can teams recover from this, it will make them grow.
The role of the leader in normalizing conflict
Not everyone is comfortable with conflict, especially if they come from a risk-averse culture. To get teams to a place where co-workers can openly disagree, the manager or team leaders plays an important part. If she/he’s convinced that conflict is important, they will help others change their perspective. Leaders must let their people know that they expect conflict, and that they value it. There’s a chance that when teams start to have a conflict, it will be on something minor, and they’re going to get very uncomfortable, or even feel guilty. In these situations, the leader must intervene to positively reward the experience, and congratulate team members that are having an open conflict. When the leader interrupts and provides real-time permission to engage in conflict, encourages team members and rewards them, they’re going to keep going. They will let go of their anxiety and guilt, and keep the discussion going until they finally reach an agreement that they both support completely.