“Productive conflict” seems like an oxymoron to most teams. If you’re anything like me, the words “productive” and “conflict” don’t seem like they should even be in the same sentence, unless, of course, that sentence reads something like: “Conflict is not productive.”
But think about it, all great relationships…the ones that last for the long haul…require productive conflict in order to grow.
This is true in marriage. When Nicole and I got married, I thought we were supposed to avoid arguments. As you can imagine, it caused unnecessary stress in our relationship. We didn’t talk through our differences. When we had disagreements, I had a tendency to brush things under the rug. After 15 years of marriage, we’ve had to learn how to have healthy conflict.
It’s true in parenting. Just yesterday, a neighbor was over playing with our kids and they got in an argument. The friend was ready to leave but I told them they needed to “work it out”. If they can’t learn to work out their conflicts in elementary school, they will continue to avoid conflict into adulthood.
It’s also true on our teams. But, because we are conflict adverse, we end up spending inordinate amounts of time and energy trying to avoid the kind of debates that will make our teams great.
Here are some characteristics of teams that avoid conflict:
- Team members sit in meetings and give the proverbial head nod, & then resort to back-channel personal attacks by going office to office complaining about the decision that was made.
- They waste time revisiting the same issue again and again without resolution.
- Their meetings seldom have disagreements or differences of opinion, but when they do it’s very personal or squelched quickly.
- Politics and gossip thrive.
- Disagreements are almost always taken personally.
- No one questions anything.
So, how can we go about developing the ability and willingness to engage in healthy, productive conflict?
- Create a “safe” culture where conflict over ideas is encouraged. Healthy debate must be the norm.
- Focus your debate on the idea, not the individual. Do this by avoiding personal attacks and interoffice politics.
- Team members must get over their discomfort. They must move from self-protection to self-disclosure.
- Realize that bad ideas can lead to good ideas so ultimately there are really no bad ideas.
Conflict on a team is necessary. When it’s avoided…people grow bitter, relationships sour, and the team suffers. Ultimately, when teams can’t engage in productive conflict the ministry, church, and organization stops growing.
So, how do you deal with conflict on your team?