I grew up in a family where debate was encouraged but passionate conflict was awkward and scary, because someone inevitably stomped out of the room, slamming the door behind them. I’ve since learned that there is a way that healthy conflict not only makes the team dynamic stronger and increases their performance, it also leads to better solutions and outcomes.

We have likely all experienced the meeting where tension begins to rise as people who care deeply about the issue being discussed get louder and more emotional. What usually happens? Someone suggests we take a coffee break, or table the decision until our next meeting, and we move on without resolving anything, while smouldering emotions fill the room and eventually dissipate, until the meeting after the meeting. 

What if, instead, we embraced the value of differing opinions by passionate players from the outset and made agreements about how to navigate those conversations with the intention of mining the best solutions and learning?

“Conflicting opinions are important not only because they smoke out assumptions and enlarge the pool of available information, but because they reveal what matters most to those involved.” — Mark de Rond, Harvard Business Review

After all, having healthy, diverse debate allows us to look through multiple perspectives and see a challenge from many points of view. Isn’t passionate discussion preferable to the meetings where people are so disinterested they are nodding off? These discussions, when navigated with care, may lead to more rigor in designing elegant solutions. They will certainly allow team members to build their trust muscle and encourage clear, compelling communication between members. 

By defending a possible solution against valid concerns, the promoter of an idea either strengthens his or her opinion about the viability of an idea or discovers its weak areas. As Mark de Rond points out in his article, healthy conflict may still feel awkward, yet if we embrace the merits of it, will be worth honing the skill.

Here are a few guidelines for creating psychological safety and inclusion as your team practices healthy conflict in their debates:

  • Determine the outcome and priorities the debate is serving. If you begin with that shared understanding, it makes it easier for everyone to support the process of vetting ideas
  • Delegate this discussion as a “no judgment zone,” — in other words, agree not to attack anyone on a personal level. Refrain from deprecating remarks about a person’s character, intelligence or worth. It’s one thing to say, “this idea won’t fly with our loyal customers,” and quite another to say, “How could you be so stupid?” We know the difference. No bullying.
  • Encourage rounds of open-ended questions, like “What do you see as the lead time on creating Phase 1?” Or, “How will the end user know what to do with this lever?”
  • Agree to bring all questions out into the open, and not siphon off energy and divide loyalty among team members by waiting until you have a meeting after the meeting. This creates toxicity on the team and can be extremely divisive. This is co-dependent behavior.
  • Allow every voice to be heard and considered, and encourage those who might be inexperienced or shy to participate by inviting their opinion, as in “Janet, I know you are new to the group and we’d really like to hear what your thoughts are about the overall design.”
  • Be willing to have the winning solution come from any member of the team. None of us always has the best, or the only great ideas.

Imagine the varied world views, strengths, talents and skills on the teams who work for NASA. If you were able to sit in on one of their design meetings, can you imagine how closely vetted and debated their designs and modifications are? When team members toughen their skin to be able to talk through strengths and weaknesses of ideas, they increase their value not only to the current team, but to the organization as a whole. They become truly invested, stronger players. Elegant solutions are created. Performance and engagement rise. Everyone wins. 

Teri Johnson is the founding partner of Personal Best Partners, LLC and faculty coach and mentor for People Acuity. To learn more about how we help leaders and teams be more innovative and operate more interdependently, visit our website at www.personalbestpartners.com

To learn more about online resources for your team, visit www.peopleacuity.com

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