Engaging in Productive Conflict – Why and How

When I work with teams, I ask members to share the first three words that come to mind when they think of “conflict.”  Typical responses include: arguments, war, uncomfortable, frustration, avoidance, difference of opinion, futile, waste of time and fear.
team conflict
The ability to engage in productive, constructive conflict in a team or between individuals begins with a change in mindset.  Mindset drives behavior.  Conflict is necessary.  Conflict is healthy.  Conflict provides an opportunity for us to make the best possible decisions because we are tapping into the ideas, opinions, needs, and expertise of everyone involved in the discussion.

I am an Accredited Facilitator with the Five Behaviors of a Cohesive Team™.  The first behavior is the ability to develop vulnerability-based trust.  Team members are not hesitant to share their weaknesses, admit their mistakes, ask for help and be open with their real thoughts and feelings.  This level of trust creates an environment where no one is holding back.  There is no “meeting after the meeting.”  Members engage in healthy, productive, ideological conflict in a search for truth.

As we create an environment where everyone is weighing in, Scrumteam members begin to buy into the decisions and actions brought forward within the team. It is important that everyone feels their opinions have been heard, considered and understood – even if, in the end, they are not used. This level of clarity and commitment ensures that everyone is on the same page.  Because members are aligned, it is easier to hold one another accountable for what has already been agreed upon. The focus is on the collective results of the team rather than individual agendas or egos.

Conflict is a difference of opinions involving strong emotions.  Productive conflict is focused on concepts and ideas, avoiding mean-spirited personal attacks. The sole purpose is to produce the best possible solution in the shortest period of time.

Engaging in productive conflict is essential, but not easy.  Several barriers must be overcome including the destructive tendencies of different personality styles, organizational culture, and a lack of trust.

Using Everything DiSC® styles, let’s look at the productive and destructive tendencies of each style when members find themselves in conflict situations.


Productive Behaviors

Destructive Behaviors

D – Dominance Straightforward
Acknowledge tough issues
Engage in objective debate
Overpower others
I – Influence Communicate empathy
Encourage open dialogue
Let others know how they are feeling
Overly emotional
Gloss over tension
Talk over others
S – Steadiness Tactful, listen well
Find compromise
Show flexibility
Go along to get along
Let issues simmer below the surface
C – Conscientiousness Find the root cause of the issue
Stay objective – focus on facts
Problem solver
Overly critical
Overanalyzes situation

Some cultures (Israel, France, Russia and Germany) are more confrontational while others (Japan, Indonesia, China and Thailand) avoid confrontation.  Some organizational cultures do not welcome disagreement with anyone who holds position or expert power. You don’t question the program manager, the Scrum Master, or the resident software engineering expert.

When I ask team members why they do not speak up openly and honestly in team meetings, I often hear: fear of repercussion, fear of rejection, fear of being the only one, fear of being labeled, fear of conflict, personality differences, lack of trust, belief that whatever is said will not make a difference (apathy) and not wanting anything else added to their existing workload.

So, productive conflict begins with three important actions: build trust, self-awareness to bring the best of your personality style to a conflict, and establishing norms that encourage behaviors where everyone feels heard, considered, and understood.

Building trust begins with demonstrating vulnerability.  Say things like “I was wrong” “I made a mistake” “I don’t know” or “I need help.” Connect with one another as people.  Start each meeting with a simple, getting to know you question like “What was the best recognition you ever received and why did it mean so much to you?” or “What has been a mistake you have made in your career and what did you learn from it?” As we connect we see one another as people, not objects.  I feel like I know you, and therefore, I am more willing to risk being open myself.  Over time, I become comfortable challenging or disagreeing with you and others because I know we respect one another, we have each other’s backs, and we all have the best interests of the team in mind. We approach one another with more empathy and insight. Assume positive intent – believe the best about your team members and give them the benefit of the doubt.  Don’t carry a grudge – forgive and move on. Practice “tell me first.” Go directly to your team members with issues – no gossip and no tattling to the leader.

Remember there is no well-rounded team player.  The team is well rounded because the players are not.  All personality styles (DiSC) are essential for a productive team.  When we increase our awareness of our preferences and how we behave in conflict situations, it is easier to bring the best of ourselves to conversations where we do not all see things the same way.  Think about the triggers or automatic thoughts that bring out those destructive tendencies. “You’re trying to make me look stupid.” “You think I’m incompetent.” “You want my job.”  Challenge those thoughts by asking questions like “is that thought really true?” “Am I overreacting or exaggerating the situation?” “How might I reframe the situation to enable a more productive response on my part?”

It is essential in teams to set conflict norms – what do we need and expect from one another to engage in healthy conflict.  For example, agree that agendas will be sent out at least 24 hours in advance so team members will have time to prepare and think about their positions. (Your S and C styles will appreciate this.) Invite others to challenge your opinion. “Who has a different opinion?” “What am I missing here?” (Good advice for Dominance styles.) Use structured brainstorming or round robin to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to share their ideas and thoughts.  Remember that people cannot read your mind – speak up.  Even if you have nothing to add, please say “I have nothing else to add.”   One of my favorite norms was “Stoke an idea before you soak it.”  Look for what is right and build on that.  Say “Yes, and” rather than “Yes, But.”

If you are the leader, remember to speak last.  Allow others to weigh in and then you share.  For some, it is very difficult to challenge or disagree with the leader.  Stay engaged – put down the technology.  Watch body language and how others are responding to what is being said or not said.  If someone is disrespected, reaffirm them by saying “Thank you for sharing your opinion.  Let me ask you a few questions so I better understand why you feel the way you do.” or “I’m not sure we are all on the same page on this issue.  Let’s go around one at a time and see everyone’s perspectives.”

Productive conflict begins with a change in mindset, building trust, encouraging the productive tendencies of different styles and creating norms that eliminate fears and allow every member to weigh-in.  As a result, teams build commitment for the innovative ideas that move the organization forward.

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Gale Mote
Gale Mote