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 spent nearly the first decade of my career working with groups of people trying to find consensus. I worked for a while as a diplomat in Brussels. Negotiating across 25 countries, you learn the art of compromise and understand the value of consensus.

Some of the reasons why consensus can be a problem

  • Reaching a consensus when people have got different views can be slow.
    It can mean revisiting a subject many times, which can take an age.
  • 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

There are many reasons to move away from consensus and shift to a place where all views are freely expressed, where speaking up and talking straight is encouraged, where it’s ok to disagree, because you can disagree well, and where conflicting view points are welcomed.

  • 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.

Finding a different way

Having experienced the potential problems with consensus, and the benefits of teams talking through conflicting ideas, I’ve worked at helping teams move away from consensus to constructive conflict.

What can you do?

  1. Invite everyone to contribute
  • “leave nothing unsaid”
  • “don’t the leave the meeting with things unsaid”
  • “there are no ‘no go’ topics”
  • 1 question about something in someone else’s area of responsibility in relation to the topic

One last thing

None of this will work if you don’t trust each other, if you’re not ready to open up and be vulnerable in front of your team. Conflict on a team can only be healthy when you have an inclusive culture, where there is psychological safety and people feel that their contribution will be heard.

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.