A healthy body is one that is free of pain, right?
Wrong. Anyone ever affected by cancer knows that well before the pain the body is already waging a serious battle to stay healthy. Being pain-free is a minor consolation when the disease has already taken hold.
You can be pain free and either healthy or unhealthy – the pain is not the problem.
When we look at teamwork, the ideal state for many people is ‘pain free’, or in other words, ‘free of conflict’.
Yet under the surface, issues can brew that threaten to derail the team’s health completely.
We can’t underestimate this reality enough. In the absence of healthy conflict, issues are not only more likely to brew but also more probable and even predictable.
They say you can’t choose your family. Similarly the majority of the workforce doesn’t have the option to choose their work colleagues. The workplace is naturally a place where people of varying interests, personalities, thinking styles, action styles and walks of life come together. This diversity leads to conflict, as naturally as night follows day.
Managers often go to great lengths to eliminate conflict. One manager says “I wore the whistle and the referee shirt. I involved myself.” Other managers turn their backs, minimise the problem or engage in subtle manipulation to try to shift the goalposts.
These are all completely understandable actions given that unresolved conflict often leads to tensions that sap productivity in one way or another. Team members can stew and simmer. They can be tempted to discuss their issue with colleagues, potentially spreading the problem further. They can erupt aggressively, causing all kinds of collateral damage.
More subtly, team members with perspectives on process, delivery, revenue, sales, innovation or other critical functions could fail to raise their point of view.
Take Volkswagen’s recent scandal as a case in point here. The New York Times revealed that Volkswagen has been criticised for a culture that discouraged open discussion of problems, creating a climate in which people may have been fearful of speaking up. The emissions cheating scandal has pushed the company into a loss for the first time in fifteen years and will cost the company an estimated USD $6.7 billion.
Without healthy conflict you get groupthink, poor innovation and problems swept under the carpet. You also get serious issues with disengagement, which can lead to staff losses, unproductive hours and a malaise of low morale.
On the other hand when healthy conflict is facilitated you get stronger teams, improved processes, improved strategies, better outcomes and closer relationships.
What is healthy conflict and how can you achieve it? Healthy conflict occurs when disagreements result in positive change. Fostering this kind of conflict is not easy, but like good preventative health care, the rewards far outweigh the effort.
Value conflict. Leaders at all levels need to change their perspective to see conflict as a natural and healthy process, necessary for moving the organisation forward.
Build trust. Team-wide trust is the basis of healthy conflict: without trust people feel unwilling to share their potentially sensitive points of view. Team members can build personal trust by taking the time to get to know their colleagues and sharing their vulnerabilities.
Depersonalise the issue. Personality is seen as the no.1 cause of workplace conflict because conflict can be highly personal. People on both sides of a conflict can benefit from depersonalising the issue to see it on the basis of the objective facts.
Enquire openly. In the heat of the moment it can be an incredibly difficult personal discipline to take a deep breath and remember that you may not see all the facts. Instead ask questions to genuinely discover the reality of that person’s experience and understanding of the problem.
Learn to be calm. If at first you don’t succeed, try and try again. Conflict is uncomfortable but rather than trying to avoid conflict, learn to approach it as an opportunity to gain a new perspective. A calm, inquiring approach will do wonders to diffuse the heat in the moment. Achieving calm when under fire can be difficult but give yourself time to learn the skill.
On a final note, if conflict occurs in the context of bullying, leaders and managers need to be prepared to act swiftly and decisively. Give a bully an inch and they will take a mile.
Remember the goal is to be disease free, rather than pain free.
Don’t wait until your team needs critical intervention – encourage healthy conflict so that you can avoid the critical issues that derail teams in all the worst ways.