Why do the best teams have a lot of conflict?

I’m always bemused by the negativity associated with conflict. Recently I was talking to a friend who is a senior manager about how important it was for organisations to be comfortable with conflict. His immediate response was “oh that sounds interesting, but we don’t have much conflict around here”.  In his mind, conflict was bad.

But the truth is that if you don’t have conflict in a team or organisation, you are in deep trouble.  Research makes it clear that best practice organisations have plenty of conflict. Patrick Lencioni, the author of The Five Dysfunctions of a Team goes so far as to say that having ‘unfiltered conflict’ is a prerequisite of high performing teams.

The issue isn’t conflict per se. The issue is the nature of the conflict and the way it’s managed. As a leader you want to encourage constructive conflict. It’s constructive if it’s focussing on the issues. It’s constructive if it involves your team members exploring options and making the best decisions after considered discussion and debate. This sort of conflict is good.

Destructive conflict on the other hand is something to address. It’s destructive when it becomes personal. It’s destructive when passionate debate is replaced by anger expressed as sarcasm, ridicule or withdrawal.  It’s destructive when the real issue gets lost in the personal attacks. Then you have problems that require action. High performing leaders shut down this sort of conflict quickly. Failure to do so has serious consequences for the business.

Questions for reflection:

  • Are you creating an environment where people are comfortable with conflict?
  • Is everyone on your team having the hard conversations sooner rather than later?
  • And if not, what are you going to do about it?

If you’d like to explore this more, don’t hesitate to touch base: mark@balancedcurve.com

Mark Rosenberg