Drinking the Conflict Kool-Aid – A Beginner’s Guide

It’s astounding how things can creep up on you without you even noticing. Things that change your perceptions, your beliefs. Subtle things that change your behavior and reactions. And if you’re in the right environment, those things will change you for the better.

I’ve been working with Trebuchet Group as an employee for almost three months now. And, quite frankly, things work differently here more so than any other place I’ve worked in my career. Trebuchet Group is a consulting company that focuses on organizational success through effective teamwork. And one of the foundations they stand on is the necessity of healthy conflict within companies.

By definition, conflict doesn’t seem healthy. Merriam-Webster gives the first definition of conflict as “Noun - Fight, Battle, War”. Those are not exactly things you want happening in your tactical staff meetings on Monday mornings. The definition as a verb is more what we mean - “to be different, opposed, or contradictory :  to fail to be in agreement or accord”.

No matter how outstanding your team is, you’re not always going to be in agreement. And you shouldn’t be. When there is no conflict within your team, you can be lulled into False Harmony. That’s an environment where people work together to get things done but somehow feel like they’re not supposed to talk about problems, obstacles, fears, or concerns. Not talking about issues doesn’t make them go away. Instead it tends to drive them underground where they poison the well everyone drinks from.

Trebuchet Group practices what they preach and I had my first full taste of healthy conflict in our staff retreat at the end of last year. Spending two days in a room with your coworkers who are fully committed to disagreeing respectfully while maintaining their personal passion is eye-opening. I also found it profoundly uncomfortable. I was continually waiting for the argument to break out, for sharp words, and hurt feelings. They never manifested.

That’s because, as a team, we don’t argue. We disagree. We discuss. We aim for radical transparency and mine for intent and perspective. We listen fully and get clarity. When we’ve talked it through, we check everyone’s commitment to the goal and next steps. And when we walk out of the room, everyone feels heard and has committed to a course of action.

To say healthy conflict is powerful is an understatement. Highly productive teams engage in positive, healthy conflict around concepts and ideas, opening the possibility for a greater solution than any one person can create or own. And it fosters commitment on a deep level to the goals of the organization and the path of action the team needs to take.

Changing from a culture of false harmony or unhealthy conflict to one of positivity takes work and time. We’ve worked with many clients to improve their conflict strategies. Here are some good first steps:

  • Acknowledge you’re going to be uncomfortable for a while

If you haven’t spent a lot of time around healthy conflict, it may feel tense a first. It takes a bit to develop trust in others to keep the disagreement from becoming personal. Speak from an “I” perspective and address it with your team. Check in periodically to see where comfort levels are at.

  • Know your conflict style

Are you collaborative? Or more competitive? Do you compromise or simply avoid conflict altogether? Knowing your style, and those of your team, can help create understanding of what people need to come to an agreement. Take an online quiz or contact us for a full conflict style assessment.

  • Set conflict norms

Agree on how you’re going to disagree. Setting acceptable and unacceptable behaviors ensure every team member is on the same page and knows what is expected. One of my favorite norms recently developed by a client’s leadership team is “Agreement requires a response.” This lays out clearly that everyone must have a voice in the proceedings, even when they agree.

  • Practice, practice, practice

Reinforce your team’s understanding of what healthy conflict is. Model vulnerability. Remember that positive conflict is determined by the degree of understanding, commitment, and trust between team members after the conflict is resolved. It’s normal that it takes time to figure out.

Jana Knapp Sanchez is the clarity promoter for Trebuchet Group 

Jana Knapp Sanchez is the clarity promoter for Trebuchet Group 

At one of our tactical meetings a week or two ago I shared with our team that my husband told me I “fight differently now.” That I’m more open and things resolve faster and with less stress for both of us. I had no idea that the practices I use every day at work I was also starting to use at home, for the benefit of my marriage. “Clearly that isn’t coffee in your cup – you’ve been drinking the Kool-Aid” was the response from my team.

I’m happy to raise my glass and drink up.