Overcoming a fear of conflict

Some practical tools to help teams move away from consensus

“Teams that trust each other are not afraid to engage in passionate dialogue around issues and decisions that are key to the organization’s success. They do not hesitate to disagree with, challenge, and question one another, all in the spirit of finding the best answers, discovering the truth, and making great decisions.” Patrick Lencioni

I’ve spent a long time trying to find consensus

I also managed committees in the House of Lords. One of our goals was to produce reports that every committee member could sign up to, and committees normally did this by consensus. Voting was a last resort and almost always avoided: better to find a form of words that all of the committee could live with than something sharper and more divisive.

There are lots of situations where consensus is helpful. But there are other situations where it is unhelpful.

Some of the reasons why consensus can be a problem

  • It can mean avoiding issues.
  • It can mean people not saying what they think — they bite their tongue because they don’t want to rock the boat.
  • It can mean less diversity of thought as fewer dissenting views are expressed.
  • It can mean a lack of clarity: some teams use consensus to avoid taking a clear decision, and different people can believe different things have been decided and communicate different messages.
  • It can mask a lack of buy-in with an artificial harmony, and people who are less bought in to a decision are less likely to implement it.

Why disagreement is important

The main thing for me is the quality of decision making. Hearing a range of conflicting views helps to avoid group think. If people feel free to disagree, they are less likely to simply conform with an emerging consensus. It means a team is less likely to go with a lazy status quo and more likely to unearth innovative disruptive thinking. In a work setting where team members do not openly express their opinions, the result is often inferior decisions.

Disagreements where you explore the underlying cause of conflict can be productive:

“Conversations that expose fundamental tensions often uncover gaps or contradictions in strategy. Consequently, they improve not only a single decision but the entire constellation of decisions that follow.” Boz

Other key reasons for encouraging constructive conflict are:

  • It helps create an inclusive culture, where everyone feels comfortable sharing your opinions.
  • It helps break down hierarchies and avoids HiPPO decision making: the tendency for lower-paid employees to defer to higher-paid employees when a decision has to be made. HiPPO is an acronym for the “highest paid person’s opinion”.
  • It leads to clearer decisions, which makes it easier to hold people to account.
  • Decisions are more likely to stick. How many times have you left a meeting thinking something has been agreed only for that decision not to be implemented afterwards? When this has happened to me, I’ve often looked back and realised the decision was based on an artificial harmony. People weren’t objecting to what was being agreed, they had just stayed silent and not spoken up. They then left the meeting not having committed to the decision. They weren’t bought in to the decision, and they didn’t stick to it, they just ignored it.

“You can’t be an effective leader in business, politics, or society unless you encourage those around you to speak their minds.” Bob Taylor

Finding a different way

But how do you encourage healthy conflict in a team?

Here are some of the things that have worked for me. If you’ve got other ideas, let me know — I’d love to hear them.

What can you do?

Before reaching a decision as a team, double check with anyone who has not contributed. The question “what do you think?” is a powerful one.

2. Actively seek dissenting opinions

To ensure you’re not in an echo chamber of consenting views, actively seek alternative points of view or conflicting data. Questions that help here include: “Does anyone have a different view?” “What are the reasons why we might not do this?” “Is there something that we’re missing?”

3. Say thank you

Welcome and express gratitude for conflicting contributions. Doing this might seem obvious, but it’s still valuable. People engaged in a passionate debate can become uncomfortable with the conflict, particularly if it’s new to them, or the team is new. Reminding people why it’s important and that what they’re doing is necessary for the effectiveness of the team’s decision making can be powerful and can help to remove tension.

4. Team principles: it’s ok to disagree

Sometimes, people feel they need permission to disagree. It is worth putting effort into creating a ‘safe space’ where each team member feels that they can share their perspective without fear of judgement. Agreeing a set of team principles helps folk to take responsibility for the space as well as the outcome. And you can include a principle to explicitly encourage people to speak up and engage in constructive conflict. Here are examples of this type of principle from teams that I’ve been in:

  • “spit it out”
  • “leave nothing unsaid”
  • “don’t the leave the meeting with things unsaid”
  • “there are no ‘no go’ topics”

Making it explicit that you value/expect conflicting views is a tool some famous big companies do. One of McKinsey’s values is to ‘uphold the obligation to dissent’. Amazon also encourages conflict through it’s leadership principle of ‘disagree and commit’ (which I wrote about in a different post): “Leaders are obligated to respectfully challenge decisions when they disagree, even when doing so is uncomfortable or exhausting.”

You can seek to balance your principles so that people are encouraged to speak up and are also asked to do so whilst respecting everyone’s point of view.

5. Run retrospectives on your team principles

It’s one thing to have a set of team principles, it’s another thing to follow them and for them to be effective. If you have a set of team principles, it’s important to check in and review how you’re doing against your principles: “Are we following our principles?”

When I’ve seen this be most effective, it’s not been an abstract question, but we’ve done retros regularly at the end of meetings. The principles became so much part of how we operated that people would use them in realtime, intervening in a meeting when they felt people were not following them.

6. Question time
It’s amazing how often people have questions or doubts in their head that they do not openly share with the wider team. Unearthing what people do not understand about something can be an illuminating exercise that brings out many unspoken questions and assumptions.

Choose a topic that you want to explore. Ask everyone to write both:

  • 1 question about something within their own area of responsibility in relation to the topic, and
  • 1 question about something in someone else’s area of responsibility in relation to the topic

Contributions can either be in the form of a question (eg “How will we do X?” “When will we do Y?”), or a statement (eg “I don’t understand how we will…” or “It’s not clear to me how you will…”).

This exercise is primarily aimed at gaining clarity, or at least exposing where there is not clarity. In running this exercise, however, I have found that it is also an effective way to expose different hidden assumptions that people hold and thereby bring out conflicting views.

7. Talk about conflict

It can be powerful simply to ask team members to share their thoughts and feelings regarding conflict with each other. The most straight forward thing is to ask something like: “How do you react to conflict?”

A more indepth and inclusive exercise is to ask team members to answer the question “How comfortable do you feel in sharing your opinions in this team, even if they conflict with other opinions in the team?” You can use a scale from 0 (not at all comfortable) to 10 (very comfortable), and then invite people to explain why they gave a high/medium/low score. If you’ve got outlying low scores, you’ll have to take care to do this without putting anyone on the spot.

A less discursive/theoretical and more practical way to do this — suggested by Ryan Yeoman — is to “call a meeting specifically to address an issue where debate and conflict are present —and shine the light on them.” A former boss I had called this “going to the heat”.

8. Map roles and tensions

I’ve not tried this one, but here is an exercise to help your team feel more comfortable with conflict, by Liane Davey

9. Wear different hats

Six Thinking Hats is a simple way to ensure that a group includes different ways of thinking/points of view, through using six roles. Each thinking role is identified with a colored symbolic “thinking hat.” The methodology organizes these different thinking processes in a detailed and cohesive manner, which ensures that a group look at decisions from a number of important different perspectives.

One last thing

So building trust should really be your starting point. But that’s a different blog post…

Some further reading:

“Dare to Disagree”: A TED talk by Margaret Heffernan

Senior Director @ElsevierConnect doing product strategy implementation & performance. Mainly writing about getting from A to B, & digital stuff. Personal acc’t.