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  • SZH Consulting

Productive Conflict: The Secret Ingredient for High Performing Teams

The word “Conflict” can make many people uncomfortable (squirmish even). And that is understandable! In our society, the word conflict comes with a lot of negative connotations. It is what we have been conditioned to avoid versus embrace. However, conflict, and specifically productive conflict, is a very healthy part of team development. Teams who engage in productive conflict, far out-perform those that avoid all types of conflict, at all costs.

This was especially highlighted in an internal research study that Google conducted a few years back. Labeled Project Aristotle, the project team studied 180 teams to identify the core factors that make teams successful. The results were not shocking, but one surprising yet critical element that bubbled up from this study was that teams that were effective and performed well together, felt comfortable and safe challenging each other’s ideas and perspectives about their work. Another term used for this type of productive conflict is task conflict. According to another research study published in the International Journal of Conflict Management in 2018, task conflict encourages creativity, innovation and growth. When teams are able to constructively engage in task conflict, they can engage in passionate dialogue around issues and choices that are key to the organization’s success. These teams are okay with disagreeing, challenging, and questioning one another, all in the spirit of finding the best answers, discovering the truth, and making great decisions.

The trick though is to ensure that the conflict stays task-based and does not escalate into relationship conflict, which can have severely detrimental effects on team cohesion and performance. Relationship conflict, arises from personality clashes and differences in style, norms, personal beliefs and values. Cultivating healthy conflict means keeping relationship conflict in check so that there is space and trust created to engage in disagreements about ideas and possible solutions, leading to better results for the team and the organization.

Healthy & Unhealthy Behaviors During Conflict

Patrick Lencioni’s Five Behaviors of a Cohesive framework does a great job of clearly identifying what healthy behaviors in a conflict look like versus unhealthy behaviors.

Try to see how many of the healthy and unhealthy behaviors you find yourself engaging in during conflict? Often times we engage in unhealthy behaviors without even realizing how detrimental those are. We might think that we are protecting ourselves or others in the team, but what we end up doing is making it less acceptable and safe for ourselves and our colleagues to engage in open and respectful discussion and debate over ideas and perspectives that could lead to better outcomes for all.

Leadership’s Role

So how can teams build the muscle and get better at engaging in productive, healthy task based conflict? It starts with the leader setting the right tone and keeping relationship, or in other words interpersonal, conflict at bay. Five key ways leaders can encourage more productive conflict on their teams:

  1. Make it normal and acceptable that there will be and should be productive tension within the team in the shape of questioning known information or viewing issues from different perspectives.

  2. Make it safe for team members to speak up and challenge each other’s ideas and perspectives in a respectful manner by building and implementing team norms and protocols around healthy debate.

  3. Intentionally and explicitly ask every member of the team to vocalize their opinion, no matter if it is in support of the majority’s point of view or is different. Hold each team member accountable to contributing their ideas and perspectives.

  4. Make it clear that personal attacks will not be tolerated. Establish rules of interpersonal engagement that everyone on the team agrees to follow.

  5. Embed productive disagreement in individual performance reviews. Show tangible commitment by finding ways to directly and indirectly reward productive conflict. Make clear for the team the consequences if each person on the team is not willing to step up and challenge.

High performing teams know how and when to lean in and tap into the power of constructive conflict. An important question for leaders to reflect on is what actions and behaviors can they adopt and commit to, to actively foster productive conflict within their teams. Based on that, they should define guidelines that they would want their teams to follow when engaging in conflict.

Teams that know how to use and are comfortable with productive conflict can challenge one-another’s assumptions, think outside of the box, and strive for new ideas. This in turn helps teams and companies be more innovative and achieve greater results.


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