“In Patrick Lencioni’s book, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, lack of conflict was identified as one of the 5 reasons why a team can be/is ineffective. Personally, I do not have any issue with healthy conflict, so this was not a difficult concept for me to adopt. However, many leaders discourage conflict in their teams, thinking that it will cause animosity between teammates and that it discourages openness and free expression of thought. What is you opinion on this? Is conflict healthy for a team, or not?”
–Question posted by Aaron Criss
Conflict means different things to different people and is highly related to context and the parties involved. There can be fierce disagreement about the best course of action going forward, where the parties are highly animated, voices are raised, and ultimately a decision is made and all agree to abide by it. For some, the raised voices signify the conflict is “unhealthy,” while others see it as passionate engagement over the issues. There can also be calm, thoughtful discussion on the same issue where a decision is made, then people undermine each other because there was no buy-in. For some, this latter appears healthier because the parties were calm.
So the definitions for both “conflict” and “health” are up for grabs here, and people are apt to disagree on both. In my role as a manager, I see conflict, disagreement, playing the devil’s advocate, and commitment as essential to arriving at the best decisions. There’s no way I will ever know all that I need to make a completely informed decision. Without opposing ideas, there’s way too much that I’m blind to. What I watch for in conflict situations is that the communication is effective. Are both sides hearing each other, rather than just talking at each other? Is the disagreement because both sides have differing perspectives and values, or because they don’t fully understand each other? Also, is it clear to the participants what decision-making style is going to be used? For example, if people think they are striving for consensus, the conflict may drag on for quite some time. But if they realize that somebody else (a manager, for example) is actually responsible for a decision and the consequences, then the manager can bring the conflict to an end quicker by being clear about HOW the decision will be made in addition to what is being decided.
Lastly, I also monitor the dialog to make sure it is mostly about the content of the disagreement rather than the personalities engaged in the conflict. When conflicts start getting personal, that’s when I think that it becomes unhealthy.