As you look around the room, you see lots of heads nodding up and down, toothy smiles pasted onto each face. Your boss has just pitched an idea, and you and some of the rest of your team thinks it’s not the most wonderful one he’s ever come up with, so naturally you indicate that by nodding and smiling in affirmation.
In truth, it ought to be a red flag if a team can sit in meetings together discussing important things without engaging in robust and passionate discussion about those things sometimes. If teams can discuss things without any dissent or diverging opinions being aired, they can be almost certain things are being left unsaid or unexplored. It’s tough to imagine a bunch of adult professionals sitting in a room agreeing about everything all the time.
It’s not only OK to engage in healthy conflict around ideas, it’s important to do it. We’ve got to pick more fights. We’ve got to push on each other’s ideas because that’s how ideas get vetted and get better.
What are some signs your team needs to fight more?
1. No one questions anything. Conflict essentially is considered off-limits.
2. There is an environment in place where politics and gossip thrive. More conversation about ideas and strategy happens away from the team than with it. Think of it this way: Your team will discuss the vision and strategy of the team; it’s just a matter of where it’s going to happen. Encourage healthy conflict, and you’ll be able to manage and push those conversations in a positive and helpful direction.
3. Everyone has well-defined calf muscles.This happens as a result of tiptoeing too much. Team members spend more time and effort trying to avoid conflict than they do trying to come up with proactive, innovative ideas.
4. Not everyone has ideas. It’s not that everyone has to have a strong opinion about every single topic that’s discussed, but at the same time if someone sits silently meeting after meeting, you’ve got to wonder why.
5. Tapdancing is considered teambuilding. Everyone ignores controversial topics precisely because they could be controversial. So they dance around them and rationalize it as preserving the peace. Or something.
6. There are more disclaimers than an anti-depression drug commercial. No one feels like they can say anything without prefacing it with some sort of disclaimer. Now, I’m not trying to be a Debbie Downer, and I don’t want to sound like I have any issues with So-and-So’s idea, because I don’t and I think So-and-So is just fabulous and always has such terrific thoughts; but…
Leaders, It’s on Us
This is an especially important point to grasp if you are in any sort of leadership role within your group, whether that’s a team, department, small business, or large corporation. We have to understand that we need our teams to work and think through our ideas. As humans, we’re nowhere near perfect, so we need to be aware (sometimes painfully aware) of the fact that not all of the ideas we have or will come up with are good ones. We must depend on our teams to think through ideas, critique them, and offer alternatives. It’s only after that sort of exercise that we can move forward together, confident we’ve explored the options we could think of and selected the best one, even if it’s not the one that we, as their leaders, were advocating.
This sort of healthy, productive conflict doesn’t happen automatically. It must be worked at and practiced. You may even want to consider calling someone in from the outside to sit in on a couple strategic meetings and help you identify when and where these discussions should be taking place, as well as what those discussions might sound like. If your team currently doesn’t engage in ideological conflict, it’s going to be a lot like learning how to ride a bike all over again at first. It likely will feel uncomfortable and slightly awkward, but your team needs to persevere through that stage so you can begin to really reap the benefits of cultivating that type of engaged and creative culture.