Productive Conflict – help your team grow by engaging in conflict

Are you working in a team where everyone gets along but you feel that real issues are being avoided? Or is your manager someone who makes all the decisions and doesn’t ask for input? Or do you feel uneasy voicing your concerns or presenting your ideas to a group of people in fear of rejection? Or do you, as a leader, avoid conflict to create harmony?

All of these experiences are not uncommon, and I observe them over and over when working with leaders and intact teams. Conflict has a negative connotation, and a large number of leaders avoid conflict altogether, or they don’t know how to create a culture that is conducive to people being open to debate and brainstorming.

My experience

Encouraging productive (or constructive) conflict, however, is one of the most important leadership skills for team leaders and executives. But we need to build the foundation and culture first. I worked for a Hong Kong based company as a sales director a few years back where, on the surface, the CEO was promoting productive conflict by telling us he wants to hear our ideas, saying he is open and having daily executive meetings. The fundamental problem was that there was no trust or psychological safety to engage in conflict: ideas were shut down, certain topics were taken offline quickly, lots of bitching behind your back when challenging the status quo and so on. Favouritism and gossip were thriving and the people telling the boss what he wanted to hear were promoted. Needless to say, I left the company and so did everyone else.

Productive conflict doesn’t stand on its own and it won’t happen without a level of trust and psychological safety. I often demonstrate where productive conflict sits with the help of Lencioni’s 5 Dysfunctions of a team framework:

Absence of trust leads to avoidance of conflict which results in a lack of commitment and leads in turn to avoidance of accountability. The result is inattention to result (or underperformance).

‘A willingness to trust and openly listen to alternative ideas and views is essential for collaboration to be successful.’ -Dale Eilerman

Lencioni’s model shows that the absence of trust and psychological safety within a team leads to a fear of conflict. When people don’t feel safe to speak up, bring forward their own ideas or challenge the status quo, they will not engage in productive debate. When addressing underperformance or lack of accountability in your team or organisation, shift your view to the bottom of the pyramid first and temperature check the level of trust that is present. Once you build a culture where people feel safe to be vulnerable, be themselves, be creative and speak up, you can encourage productive conflict.

Here is my model for leaders who are looking for growth and team performance:

  1. Trust & Psychological Safety. Start by role modelling trust behaviours like vulnerability, asking for help, letting everyone speak, listening and constructive feedback. Building trust is all about showing people that you have their back, that you personally care, and that you connect and communicate in a meaningful way. If you discover a lack of trust within your team, work on team communication and teach skills like giving and receiving feedback, coaching skills, radical candor and so on. Create a culture where team members feel safe to ask questions, ask for help, voice ideas no matter how left off centre and where it is safe to say: “I don’t agree with you but appreciate your point of view…!”
  2. Productive Conflict. Once you have created the openness and level of trust, you can encourage productive conflict. Make brainstorming and feedback sessions the norm. Make sure your teams work on projects and issues that are in their control. You can bring productive conflict into most of your meetings and conversations, make it a habit.
  3. Commitment & Accountability. When people are in charge, are being asked for their opinion and feel empowered, they will show a higher level of commitment to the team and the organisation. What is important here is that all team members are held accountable not only for their performance but also for their good and bad behaviour. That they are held accountable for their mistakes and recognised for their achievements. There is nothing worse than overcoming a challenge or delivering amazing results without a iota of recognition or feedback.
  4. Respect. How does the saying go, ‘respect has to be earned’. It’s part of the cycle. Once you have created trust and can encourage a culture of constructive conflict where people are held accountable, respect by staff, clients and stakeholders will increase. Respect for leaders doing the right thing and encouraging everyone actively being part of the organisation.
  5. Growth. This will look different for everyone. It depends on what growth means to you. Growth will happen if you start with Trust. If you are experience challenges like underperformance, lack of productivity, lack of collaboration or decrease in sales, go back in the circle and find out where your team is stuck. Chances are, you might have to work on increasing trust again.

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Jessica Schubert

Jessica Schubert is a Leadership Expert, Executive Coach, Facilitator, Author and Speaker. She is obsessed with helping people realise their potential and unlock their inner genius.

Born in Cologne, Germany, Jessica has travelled the world and has spent more than 20 years leading cross-cultural teams in competitive markets throughout Europe and the Asia Pacific. As she worked with and coached her own diverse, cross-cultural teams, she came to realise that learning about yourself and developing interpersonal skills is the most powerful tool to lead and influence people around you.

In 2013 she launched Intact Teams, where she and her team have worked with thousands of leaders in organisations worldwide, delivering custom-designed leadership programs and workshops. These interactive and engaging programs are offered both virtually and in-person, helping leaders and their teams succeed in a complex and ever-changing business environment.

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Jessica Schubert