Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Power of Constructive Conflict

When I teach seminars on teamwork, I usually break people into small groups and give them a few minutes to come up with what they think are the five most important aspects of a high performing team.  What would you say?

Usually groups come up with lots of good ideas, but almost never do they list the importance of “constructive conflict.”  Yet, the research on teamwork tells us this is a very important ingredient for a high performing team.  Why?

Imagine this.  A team is having a meeting and “Billy Bob” has an idea.  “Sally Mae” thinks it is a bad idea, but not so bad that she wants to “rock the boat.”  She doesn’t say anything, the idea does not work, and it wastes a lot of time and money.  This happens every day in organizations and bad ideas get implemented because someone won’t speak up.

Or maybe it goes down like this . . . . . Billy Bob’s next idea is SO bad that Sally Mae can’t stand it.  “Billy Bob, that is an idiotic idea.  Are you trying to destroy this organization!?!?”  And that’s what we call negative conflict – and you have seen the results of that.

What is needed is a “norm” of valuing constructive conflict and developing a team competency to disagree without being disagreeable; to collaborate and create better ideas together.  The lack of constructive conflict leads to mediocre or even disastrous decisions.  It can lead to “Groupthink” which has been blamed for causing such tragedies as the Challenger explosion.
I’m oversimplifying (it’s a blog), but here’s the advice:  don’t be overly polite, but don’t be a jerk, and don’t get upset if someone respectfully critiques your idea.

How do you develop the competency of “constructive conflict” within your organization?

Of course you could hire a great consultant to come in and do a workshop for you.  But if you want to try something on your own, I suggest buying the book, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni for everyone.  Lencioni’s formula for a high performing team, which is backed up by the research, is:

*They trust one another
*They engage in unfiltered conflict around ideas
*They commit to decisions and plans of action
*They hold one another accountable for delivering against those plans.
*They focus on the achievement of collective results

Bring your team together and ask these questions:  Based on what the book says about teamwork:

*What are we doing well?
*What’s not working?
*How can we make what’s not working, work?

This will give you the beginning of a dialogue that you will have to reinforce over time to develop the competency of constructive conflict and the other four competencies.  Over time you can develop your group into an even higher performing team.

Try it for your next off site or summer staff retreat and practice disagreeing . . . without being disagreeable.  It will help your team make even more of a mission impact.

For more ideas on how you can lead breakthroughs in your organization, follow this blog and check out my web site at   You will find free resources you can download, including a Breakthrough Strategy Workbook that you can download at no cost.  You can also check out my book, Mission Impact:  Breakthrough Strategies for Nonprofits, and buy it if you are interested.  And you can follow Sheehan Nonprofit Consulting on Facebook.

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