4 June 2021
Design Leadership

Cultivating the Right Kind of Conflict

The ability to share conflicting views about a situation or problem and still get on is a vital component of any high functioning team. It allows us to broaden our range of possible solutions, spot weaknesses in our arguments, and test our assumptions—usually in the pursuit of a better outcome. As a result, productive conflict is generally focussed on things—be they ideas, features or solutions—rather than individuals. “I don’t agree with this” rather than “I don’t agree with you”.

Teams who are able to navigate a high degree of conflict understand that— while discussions may get heated at times—everybody is doing their best to come up with the best solution. They also know that whatever ideas they offer won’t adversely affect their standing in the group, even if those ideas are later discounted. This is one of the fundamental building blocks of psychological safety; the ability to openly share your thoughts without fear of censure or repercussion.

These sorts of conversations can understandably become tense. We like to talk about “strong opinions, loosely held” but it’s much easier said than done. We come to our opinions based on everything we’ve learnt, felt and experienced in our lives, so when people disagree with us, we often feel that we just haven’t done a good enough job explaining. All I need to do is explain what I know better, and the other person will surely understand and agree. 

This can present itself in a number of ways, including being too stuck on your own ideas, not listening to other people's ideas, trying too hard to prove that your idea is right (which can feel argumentative) or trying to prove that somebody else's idea is wrong. 

When people disagree with one of our ideas, it’s easy to feel like they’re disagreeing with us as individuals. That somehow they’re invalidating our own opinions and experiences. This can be even more challenging if there are perceived levels of authority in the group, as we’ll work extra hard to maintain and protect our status. 

As a result, productive conflict can quickly become personal, as we start to make up explanations for why our ideas fail to get traction. That person never listens. That person thinks they’re so smart. That person doesn’t like me. We make up similar stories around why other colleagues start to withdraw from the process. That person can’t handle it. That person has nothing to say. That person is lazy. 

Very quickly we’ve gone from a productive conversation about things, to an unproductive conversation about your individuals. And it’s never much fun when somebody else starts telling you what you’re like. Especially when they haven’t really taken the time to understand you. 

In order to avoid awkward situations, many teams try to avoid conflict altogether. However this usually results in “artificial harmony”. Folks not saying what they really think because they don’t want to have to go through the wringer again. While this may feel safe, it’s the very opposite of Psychological Safety, and the quality of our solutions drops rapidly as a result.

As such it’s important for teams to realise that not all conflict is bad. A certain level of conflict may be necessary to get the best outcomes. However it needs to be the right kind of conflict that’s focused on things rather than people. Getting comfortable with conflict is a skill. It takes time, it takes effort and it takes a good degree of self awareness. But if done correctly, it can have a transformative effect on the quality of your work.