Written by John Faulkner-Willcocks March 16, 2022(edited on October 15, 2022)
How To Level Up Your Team By Running Towards Constructive Conflict
Do you ever feel like your team isn't talking about important things? Do meetings end and feel awkward like they missed the important point? Do you feel like stuff gets left unsaid? This likely means your team is struggling to have constructive conflict and instead opting to avoid it entirely. You are not alone! Conflict is hard. It's especially tough to deal with in fast-moving startup and scale-up environments. The stakes are high, it doesn’t feel like there is ever enough time, and it can be difficult to focus deliberately on teamwork.
However, we think it is an essential ingredient for teams who want to operate at the top of their game.
As Patrick Lencioni, author of 5 Dysfunctions of a Team says:
“When there is trust, conflict becomes nothing but the pursuit of truth, an attempt to find the best possible answer.”
At Candor, we think that a team's first constructive conflict is actually something worth celebrating. It's one of those magic moments where you can take a step back and be like:
"Hell yeah, we trusted each other enough, and we had the skills to field 2 passionately opposing points of view with respect and dignity.”
Teams that can respectfully disagree and challenge one another operate on another level to those that don't, for the simple reason that their relationships at work are stronger and more honest. In this post, we are going to go over what constructive conflict is, some warning signals to be aware of, and of course: how to kickstart your team from not talking about the hard stuff to running towards it! Let's get into it!
Healthy conflict vs unhealthy conflict
Broadly speaking, there are two kinds of conflicts: healthy and unhealthy. Healthy conflict is a clash of ideas and perspectives; it can be used to help your team better understand what they're building, learn how to work together more effectively, and grow as individuals. Unhealthy conflict is personal; it can involve full-blown personality clashes, blame, and typically triggers flight, fight, or freeze responses. It's a bad place for a team to be. Do you know when a sports team starts fighting with each other instead of getting in a huddle to figure out their next play? At that moment, you can almost feel it: the fans and everyone at home watching on TV sigh together, they know their team is doomed to fail. It's the same with any team. That's unhealthy conflict. It's BS.
Watch out for an absence of conflict
It's not simply a case of saying: "Oh we don't have any unhealthy conflict, therefore we are a super team." The other thing to watch out for is lack of conflict. If you don't have any conflict at all this doesn't mean that you've been catapulted into the realms of high performance either! Sorry.
Think about it right? Imagine a team that reacts to challenges with silence. Imagine a meeting where someone raises an issue, but nobody responds. Imagine a team where people don't speak up about problems or give each other constructive feedback.
Does that sound like a great team to you? Of course not! Lack of conflict can be just as toxic as unhealthy conflict.
Tactics to level up your team's ability to find and own their healthy conflicts
Constructive conflict doesn't have to be intense; instead, it can be constructive and fun! Here are some tangible things you can do to get some points on the board:
Decide how you want to do it!
This sounds obvious, doesn't it?! You'd be surprised at how few teams have an answer for either "How have your team decided to manage disagreement?" or "What have you documented that explains what your team will do when someone believes one thing and everyone else believes the opposite?"
Facilitate a team charter session
This is a great opportunity to facilitate a team charter workshop (here’s a Miro template we love) to bottom these questions out. If you acknowledge constructive conflict as valuable compared to not having any conflict at all then it makes sense to incorporate it into a shared document - think of it as your team's way of work - it's kind of like your candor profile but at a shared team level.
Constructive conflict is easier to manage when you get ahead of it
It's way harder to catch yourself or your team when things are already heated in the moment. In product teams, quite often there are disagreements around: building the right thing vs building the thing right vs building the thing fast and if a planning meeting becomes a war zone (we've all been there!) it's hard to have clarity and perspective to be the person who says: "hey we agreed we'd handle disagreements in this way, not like this." Also when people are fired up, this kind of comment can easily throw fuel on the fire as opposed to putting the fire out!
The way to get around this is to avoid it happening in the first place and look to be proactive with conflict: spot it and tease it out of your team before it gets messy.
This is a big topic, but there are a few example questions below that are great at teasing out potential conflicts. These may feel a bit weird to say but bear with - the results will be interesting!
"What aren't we talking about?
"What was left unsaid?"
"Where might we disagree?"
"If we decide X, then where will we get friction?"
2. Understand how your team is feeling and who is stressed
Daily or weekly team pulse - custom Slack/Discord bot works well here
3. Well run regular retrospectives
Rotate facilitation as a team to ensure everyone can contribute and collectively identify improvements to ways of working together. It's an amazingly powerful and relatively simple ritual to adopt.
4. Check-in at every team meeting
We all have bad days, stuff at home, stuff from a previous session. Making this explicit and normalizing it with your team is a super effective way to build empathy and trust. One of our favorite check-ins takes 60 seconds for a small team and is simply a quick score of your "mind, body & energy" for example: "Hey folks, I'm mind: 9 (I'm healthy), body: 5 (I'm restless, missed my walk at lunch), energy: 10 (I'm really pumped to be in this one, it's important to me).
How to facilitate constructive conflict?
So let's imagine you've identified something you disagree on as a team, perhaps it's a design direction, some wording around the brand, a campaign, or the implementation of a particular feature - what next? Well if you've been putting some of this post into practice you might have agreed how you want to handle it with your team already. If not, no problem, here are 3 things to go after:
1. Anchor positive intent
Most disagreements come from a really positive place. Find it together and spell it out. For example: "We think X, because we just want the best for our product and our community right now" and "Well we think Y because we want a product that isn't going to hurt our team to maintain." This immediately leads to a healthier place, doesn't it? Quickly you would realize: "Ok so we're arguing because we are both trying to optimize for different things - but both those things are really valid." Empathy achieved, now we can move forwards constructively.
2. Share the accountability for focusing on the problem, not the person
An effective way for sharing accountability whilst facilitating is by introducing guide-rails for the conversation upfront, before inviting everyone to subscribe and uphold them together. Example guide-rails include:
Agree to invite everyone to contribute
Agree to collectively try and keep time
Try not to dominate or interrupt other people
Seek to listen to other people's points with curiosity
Endeavor to focus on the problem, not the person.
This last one is super important because if the conversation veers into person versus person territory, it is immediately at risk of being unhealthy conflict and you won't get very far.
3. Swap sides
Disagreement requires 2 sides. Invite the strongest voice from each side to swap and argue for their opposite number’s point of view. This is a great way to build empathy and explore a topic fairly with an added bonus being that you can have quite a lot of fun with this and invite the rest of the team to vote on the most persuasive argument. Points, swag prizes, you get the idea!
Building a culture of constructive conflict in your team is a powerful way to accelerate belonging at work. By treating it as something to pursue and celebrate, you can avoid toxicity in the form of passive aggressiveness, stone-walling, awkward silences, and rumors. If you go after it and make it safe in your team, then you can expect people to have a stronger connection, more trust, healthier relationships, and all-star teamwork, which we think are key ingredients to an awesome team culture.