No one said the path to healthy conflict would be an easy one.
When I am trying to move a team towards healthy conflict, I will often show the below illustration called the conflict continuum. You see, all conflict falls on a spectrum.
On one side, you have artificial harmony, where everyone pretends that they are happy and there are no problems when, in reality, there are many problems that they are choosing to avoid, causing angst amongst the team. You can tell you are on this end of the spectrum when there is a lot of people talking behind each other’s backs and problems that are brought up over and over without resolution.
The other end is personal attacks. This is where conflict is an everyday occurrence and is far from constructive. This is the side where feelings are hurt and focus on the actual problem is replaced by insults and being downright mean.
Healthy conflict is right in the middle. It’s the perfect balance of picking battles and being constructive while at the same time, making sure your point is getting heard.
Most teams fall on one end of this spectrum or the other and must work to come closer to the middle.
So what’s the big deal? Doesn’t it seem super easy to just move towards the middle and be done with it?
You would think so, but remember, we have humans involved in this equation. These are humans with different personality types, motivations, and feelings. Humans that have been used to one form of conflict for a while and have accepted this as the “normal” way to approach things.
Like most things in life, this change is EXTREMELY uncomfortable.
Let’s use the example of a team that lives on the artificial harmony side of conflict. As they try to move towards the center, they are also moving closer and closer to personal attacks. To them, even healthy conflict is going to feel a heck of a lot more personal, blunt, and rude. Feelings will get hurt not because there really are personal attacks going on, but because it FEELS like there is.
The same is true for a team on the right side of the continuum. Moving towards the center is going to feel overly passive.
This is why getting a team to engage in healthy conflict is extremely difficult. As soon as you start down this path, you are going to be met with resistance rooted in “the old way of doing things.” Breaking old habits and establishing new rules of engagement takes time for people to get used to and understand. In trying to find a new place to draw the line, your team is going to step over it, and when that happens, it’s important to address it immediately and move that line back until everyone feels more comfortable to move forward once again.
Moving along the conflict continuum is a difficult process with many highs and lows, but if you and your team have the dedication to get through the rough parts and continue forward, you are going to find yourselves much more efficient, open, and ready to produce amazing work.