Embrace Conflict – Stand up and fight

This is part two of two articles dealing with conflict. In the previous article I discussed the importance of listening to conflicting views. In this piece I talk about how teams can use constructive conflict to become more effective.

Well I don’t mean physically, but I’ll come back to that a bit later.

I have worked in and with lots of leadership teams in lots of different contexts. Over time, I’ve come to recognise several types of team and have come up with my own personal set of descriptors.

The fighting team: These teams are indeed more like a boxing ring than a functional team with everyone sparring to make points. No-one really caring about what the team as a whole achieves as long as they look good.

The reluctant team. The team where everyone attends meetings only because they have to. The whole team would rather be somewhere else doing something else. Nothing gets done but they keep meeting anyway.

The charismatic team: By this I mean a team with a charismatic leader. Where team members surrender their own ideas to the leader who they believe knows so much more than they do so they must always be right. This is true even when the rational selves of members believe the leader is wrong. They justify this by believing the leader must know things they don’t.

The love-in: This is the RomCom of teams. The members act as if the success of the team depends on the fulfilment of a romantic fantasy between two of its members. Once again they surrender their own decision making to this fantasy.

The harmonious team: On the surface this seems to be the perfect team. Everyone arrives on time and well prepared. Detailed presentations are given with appropriate alternative courses of action. Team members discuss the proposals politely and respectfully and decisions are made by consensus. As I said, it seems like the perfect team — but it’s not. (Or at least it’s usually not.) The thing that’s missing from this type of team is passion. Team members subjugate their differences for the sake of harmony. They may not agree with a decision but remain quiet because they must be the odd one out.

So what should we aim for?

The whole reason we organise in teams is to get a range of views and expertise on decisions we need to make. The finance people contribute understanding of costs and benefits. Admin can tell us how much effort is involved in implementation. Subject heads bring knowledge of what’s important to teach. School organisation specialists give us an idea how we may need to involve the whole staff in decision making. Finally classroom teachers have the best insight into how it may impact the fundamental activity of the school.

If all these people are agreed without strong passionate discussion there is a problem. Someone or some sub-group is not saying what they need to say. Sometimes passionate viewpoints lead to strongly expressed arguments and we must expect raised voices and table thumping will occur in a well functioning team.

So, that’s what I mean by ‘Stand up and fight’. Stand up for what you believe. Stand up for the things you see and value that other apparently don’t. Be prepared for strong disagreements. You may need to express your ideas with passion and force.

Respect

All the above are necessary for a well function team. But they are not sufficient.

All this will be to no avail if team members fail to maintain the utmost respect for one another. Respect doesn’t come easily. You may well feel the Business Manager is a myopic idiot. But when you do, take a step back and remember they are a real person with real feelings and real concerns. You don’t understand what motivates them but that doesn’t mean you can’t find out. Or at least believe that somewhere in there, they have a reason for working the way they do. Perhaps they are as afraid of conflict as you are.

Respect involves words and concepts we often don’t like to use in organisations. Words like ‘love’, ‘forgiveness’, ‘kindness’, ‘thoughtfulness’ and ‘warmth’. People in organisations often refer to these concepts as ‘the soft stuff.’ I feel for people like that for in fact they are the hardest things and the things that require the most courage to bring to work.

Help!

This might sound overwhelming and indeed it can be.

One thing that is almost guaranteed to fail is for you as an individual to unilaterally start operating differently in your team without telling people what you are doing. Even then, working this way can be hellishly dangerous for both your career and your mental health.

I can’t recommend strongly enough that if you do want to start working differently in your team you should find someone who knows how to work like this and can hold a safe space for free, open, honest and respectful conversation.

Of course I would be very happy to work with you. Give a call or drop me a line if you would like to discuss