Stranger than Friction…

It’s possible to be too nice.

In fact, it’s not only possible, it’s quite common, especially in business settings. People get together for some purpose—maybe it’s an operating committee, or a project team, or a group within a department—and they start to play with ideas on how to solve problems or achieve goals. Then they start to plan, operationalize, and execute.

If that’s what’s happening in your organization, then please pay attention; you’ve missed an important step in the process: Friction.

Yes, I know it sounds strange, but without some friction—what is often called “constructive conflict”—it’s hard to know if the best ideas have surfaced and been thoroughly vetted.

Margaret Heffernan, a business executive and author, in her TED Talk Dare to Disagree, talks about the ways in which conflict avoidance can create blind spots that hinder progress. The best team members, leaders, and partners aren’t “echo chambers,” she says, and the best organizations allow people to disagree—sometimes strongly.  Note, though, that disagreement doesn’t mean incivility, and there is—quite obviously—no room for false logic or ad hominen attacks. However, without healthy conflict you and the teams you lead may be missing out on the better part of themselves—the part that challenges assumptions, works through (rather than burying) difficult issues, and produces innovative ideas that emerge, phoenix-like, suddenly and with bursts of energy.

So how do you promote and harness constructive conflict? In their study How Management Teams Can Have a Good Fight, researchers Eisenhardt, Kahwajy, and Bourgeois concluded that there are six tactics commonly used by teams that exercise healthy conflict:

  • They work with more, rather than less, information
  • They develop multiple alternatives to enrich debate
  • They establish (or have) common goals
  • They make an effort to inject humor into the workplace
  • They maintain a balanced corporate structure
  • They resolve issues without forcing consensus

To these, we would add a few “baseline” characteristics:

  • There must first be a foundation of trust across the team members. As Patrick Lencioni, author of Five Dysfunctions of a Team points out, “Remember teamwork begins by building trust.” He goes on to add that “Great teams do not hold back with one another…They admit their mistakes, their weaknesses, and their concerns without fear of reprisal.”
  • Agree to argue, debate, and disagree constructively. This may seem simplistic, but the first step towards any technique’s effectiveness is to gain agreement on using it in the first place.
  • Trust your gut, but don’t depend on it. The “gut feelings” you have about something may be your experience giving you direction. Discuss what your gut tells you, but don’t let it make decisions for you!  Always, always validate with data.
  • Gain agreement that everyone will hold everyone else accountable for participating honestly, and for supporting the final decisions.

The use of these tactics promotes collaboration and creativity—all of which leads to better teams with better leaders. And that, of course, is what we want!

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