Conflict is essential for teams, but it has to be handled in the right way.
Belbin can help teams address 'argue better', addressing conflict constructively, building cohesion in the team and reaping the performance benefits.
How do we approach conflict?
Many of us are conflict avoidant. Disagreements can produce physiological responses we don’t like – it can trigger our 'fight or flight' response.
We fall into the trap of thinking that all conflict is bad or dysfunctional conflict – that it will seem unkind or hurt others' feelings, that it will consume goodwill, time and energy without producing a valuable outcome. 'High conflict' distorts reality, creating an 'us and them' situation.
The cost of conflict avoidance
Failure to process conflict causes untold problems for teams and businesses. They build what Harvard Business Review calls a 'conflict debt' – 'the sum of all undiscussed and unresolved issues that stand in the way of progress'.
Another danger of always seeking agreement and harmony is that it can become difficult for people to speak up and dissent, so we miss the opportunity to stop and change course when we discover that something isn’t working.
When teams take the time to disagree, they often come up with more effective and mutually agreeable solutions than whatever was first considered. It encourages us to pull apart an idea and ensure that it stands up to scrutiny and merits further consideration.
By avoiding conflict, teams can become stuck in the ‘honeymoon phase’ which limits productivity and creativity and stunts growth.
"Clashes between parties are the crucibles in which creative solutions are developed and wise trade-offs among competing objectives are made."
– Harvard Business Review
Is conflict good for teams?
It may seem counterintuitive, but functional conflict can actually be good for teams. In fact, it’s crucial for effective teamwork.
Professor J. Richard Hackman, a professor of social and organisational psychology at Harvard University, discovered that arguments were good for a team, so long as they were handled well and focused on the team's objectives.
So-called 'creative friction' leads to better work outcomes – working on more creative, better- considered solutions, rather than settling for the first suggestion.
Positive team conflict
Conflict allows teams to acknowledge and synthesize diverse perspectives – this means greater inclusivity in the workplace, through the acknowledgement of diverse perspectives.
This has an impact on the bottom line. Research has shown that, whilst homogenous groups rated their performance more highly, diverse groups were more successful in completing tasks.
Disagreements within the team provide opportunities for learning and growth. The more the team practises listening to, and integrating, feedback, the more it evolves.
Surprisingly enough, conflict also improves relationships and job satisfaction, because we gain a better understanding of our colleagues and what makes them tick, and because problems are addressed rather than being swept under the carpet.
What do we need for constructive conflict?
Fostering the environment for constructive conflict in teams is a big ask. Conflict aversion is strong and it isn’t enough to tell people that disagreement is healthy and hope for the best.
In order to use conflict effectively, we need the skills and mindset to do so.
Rules of engagement
'Conflict rituals' or commonly agreed rules of engagement can help people to engage with conflict in a constructive way. This might be specifying that people should go first to the person they have a problem with, that they should offer proposed solutions, or at which point to involve a third party as a mediator. This can make disagreements more of a process and remove some of the unknown elements from the equation.
In order for people to argue effectively, psychological safety needs to be an integral part of the team’s make-up.
Psychological safety is the idea that, in order to succeed, people in teams need to feel safe to take risks and make mistakes without fear of recrimination. Establishing psychological safety frees up time and cognitive energy so that the team can expend it on projects, rather than threats from within.
A proactive approach
Rather than waiting for conflict over a particular issue to arise, take a proactive approach. This might involve identifying how people like to work, and where areas of misalignment or tension are likely to occur.
Ask the team to provide ideas and feedback on tackling these differences and to devise strategies for handling them. This helps everyone with the identification process and gives them a vested interest in making the solutions work.
To find out more about how to use Belbin contact us:
T – 1300 731 381 E – Team@Belbin.com