The Surprising Reason to Encourage Conflict

Dr Ivan Joseph
February 15, 2021
When I was a young leader, I wanted to build a strong, cohesive team. I learned all the team building exercises. You name the icebreaker, I tried it. I spent a lot of time teaching about communication styles, personality styles and I read every leadership book I could that spoke to building a strong, tight-knit team. Everyone said this was important for building a high performance culture because you are typically going to attract very competitive, goal-oriented individuals who are used to moving quickly and assertively to accomplish their goals. During this early stage of my leadership development, I viewed conflict as my failure to build a strong, connected team. In fact, I went out of my way to downplay conflict, to squelch conflict, to bury conflict or to dismiss it.

It took me a while to realize that conflict is an essential ingredient to a high performing culture.

Let me rephrase that, “Addressing conflict early in your organization is key.” If you don’t address the conflict early on, what could have been a small problem that was easily taken care of becomes a massive problem spiralling and creating factions that become a messy tangle. The postponed conflict can take months or years to heal. It can possibly result in retention issues—the loss of valuable team members.

Choosing to address conflict early and directly will move you and your organization forward much more quickly than putting it away and pretending it doesn’t matter. I have used:

  • I messages’
  • ‘the feedback loop

and in certain situations,

  • ‘mediation’

in order to get my team or myself past the internal conflicts that can sometimes be debilitating.

You don’t need to handle conflict by yourself. Those thoughts perpetuate isolation and lead to procrastination. It’s important to reach out to others to navigate through these difficult times and head off more complex and far-reaching problems.

Recently I had a great professional development opportunity when a facilitator, (the excellent @lianedavey ) spoke to our Senior Leadership Team about the role of conflict in high performing teams: specifically, how conflict is an essential ingredient in high performing teams.

Immediately, I tuned in because I’m a big believer in this. Whether it’s Tuckman’s Model of Group Dynamics as teams go through forming, storming, norming, performing and adjourning;  the active teaching of I messages as a method to de-escalate conflict; or, assigning crucial conversations to my team members, I’m a big believer that knowing how to handle conflict is a foundational cornerstone of high performance.

What was new to me, though, was the principle of tension versus friction that Ms. Davey presented. 

While I may be summarizing poorly here, allow me to share what I took away from this talk that I know I will use moving forward. In essence, conflict has two possible manifestations: tension and friction.

Friction happens in a relationship within an organization as a result of feedback being delivered in a dismissive, disrespectful and aggressive manner that elicits a defense mechanism in the receiver of the feedback. When conflict manifests as friction, individuals feel unappreciated or insignificant.

On the other side, when feedback is given with respect and couched with kindness it is often received with an open mind and a willingness to engage in further dialogue: Tension. This principle really resonated with me because it included a novel approach for leadership which was to give our people permission to engage in tension.

Encouraging team members to address issues early, respectfully and kindly turns conflict into tension. It is through this tension that we flex, and we stretch. We are pushed out of our own perspective, and growth occurs. The very nature of the word tension suggests as much.

Strange as it may seem, It’s our job as leaders to make sure that we are creating tension across our teams if we want innovation and improvement to happen. It’s also our job to be open to receiving feedback in this way that addresses one issue near to the time it presents—recognizing that openness can only happen in that place of mutual respect.

I think this really resonates with me because I recently encountered an organization where friction was the norm. I recognize now that the feedback was delivered in a dismissive and combative tone that triggered my defense mechanisms. When I encountered this style of feedback, I put up barriers and did not want to move from my position. Unfortunately, the loser in this environment full of friction was the organization itself. Because conflict became friction, neither department got what it needed because there were two headstrong people leading. Ultimately, our stakeholders suffered the results of this conflict.

My Own Ted Lasso Story:

Let me share with you another story of handling conflict from my career as a soccer coach. I had two great players: a Canadian and an Englishman. They were young freshmen, full of energy and testosterone. They loved to compete. In competitive environments, sometimes their emotions could get away from them. On this occasion, I had seen it coming all week. They were going at each other a little bit harder than they needed to on the pitch. There was just too much aggression in their practice play, and their words towards each other weren’t kind.

I could see the conflict brewing. In fact, it became obvious to everyone when they broke into fisticuffs during a scrimmage.

The next morning, one came to see me to complain about the other’s failings and all of the things that were happening, all the words and all the insults. When he left my office, I took a break. As soon as I returned to my office, the other individual came in and gave a similar story—the aggression, the meanness and the unfair things that were happening to him. I heard both sides of the story. Neither one of them wanted to talk to the other about their problems. Each one of them wanted the other off the team. They made my decision simple. They were asking me to choose one of them over the other in order to avoid conflict for the rest of the season. Instead, I brought them both into my office at the same time. I explained to them what I had noticed and observed. I told them that I agreed with them. The two of them couldn’t be on the same team. It was just too much conflict. It was going to create a distraction from our pursuit of a National Championship. I told them they left me no choice but to deal with this matter. Each one of them had made the recommendation that the other must go, so I had to make a choice.

 

My choice was simple. I dismissed them both from the team.

However, I gave them one week to come back to me and express their appreciation for the other player and to have knowledge and intimate understanding of each other if they both wanted to be a part of this team. In simple words, it was both or none. Needless to say, they were shocked. My tactic was simple: get them to address the conflict head on, and for them to also recognize that much of conflict stemmed from a lack of knowing each other. Appreciating each other’s values, how each other likes to communicate, and knowing that we all share the same common goals creates an environment set for tension rather than friction.

Fast forward five years, both of those young men became team captains. They ended up as best friends and were inseparable throughout their college experience.

Conflict wasn’t a bad thing. If we never addressed it, or if I allowed the environment to remain fertile for friction, we would have missed a glorious opportunity.

It’s important for leaders in organizations to set the tone early by giving permission for tension to happen in the organization. Not only that, but we have to take a moment to recognize where and with whom your tension would naturally build. Imagine, if you were wrapped up in your own world with your competitive blinders on, who would it create problems and challenges for? Considering this is key. It’s not personal. Doing your job to your best ability will likely put strain on someone else’s ability to meet their goals. It will be helpful for that individual to know that you are always going to be pushing them and placing tension on them. The inverse is also important. Who is always going to be creating tension for and pulling on you?

We all play a role in establishing a culture of respectful dialogue, advocating for our roles and adjudicating when there are stalemates or challenges between our colleagues. It helps the entire organization when we invest in knowing and understanding one another around the table, and how everyone’s contributions are truly valued in the overall mission.

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