Anyone who has ever attended school knows that humans live in a constant state of conflict. The conflict is between a natural desire for all of us to be part of the village and our natural desire to use our unique perspectives and abilities to influence the world around us.
Have you ever had a big idea that might impact your job or any team you are part of, but you held back that idea because you were afraid it wouldn’t be accepted? That is the conflict I am speaking about.
When I was in high school, I was part of a Principal’s Student Advisory Committee. One of the first discussions we had was whether or not to allow non-athletes to be eligible for homecoming royalty. I sat quietly through the discussion as people debated which students would be allowed to be nominated for royalty. I was quiet because I knew my opinion would likely be unpopular. The Principal noticed I was quiet and pulled me into the conversation. “Don, what do you think?” he asked.
I took a deep breath. I’m not very good at keeping my opinions to myself, especially when I was younger. “Well, I think this topic is silly. I think that the idea of homecoming royalty is an idea out of the 1950’s. It’s a popularity contest that results in most students not even making the list and most who do make the list falling short. I think we should get rid homecoming royalty altogether,” I said.
I looked around the room and saw a variety of responses. The average response was one of disgust. There was more than one potential homecoming king or queen in the room and they weren’t happy with the idea of losing their chance. I did have a few people who gave me small smiles indicating likely agreement in what I was saying. The Principal was dismissive and chuckled, “Well Don, we certainly aren’t going to do that.”. I hate being dismissed and I responded harshly. It was my first and last Student Advisory Committee meeting.
It’s natural for people within a team to want to avoid conflict because there is a chance that the conflict will result in expulsion from the team. However, conflict is incredibly important in building a healthy team.
One of the best teams I’ve ever been a part of occurred a few years ago. I was asked to lead a team to help Leadership Springfield make the transition to hiring our first Executive Director. Our team consisted of people who were very passionate about Leadership Springfield. The stakes were high. There was a real possibility that we could screw up what had been a very successful program.
Our team members had a variety of strengths and perspectives. We even had people on the team who weren’t in favor of doing the transition. In some of our meetings, we argued and debated, often passionately. However, we kept going back to our core purpose and common passion and resolved those conflicts. The result was that we were able to utilize all of the perspectives on our team at the right times. Ultimately, we were very successful as Leadership Springfield not only found an amazing Executive Director, but then expanded their programs significantly while also boosting quality. Those team members who I argued and fought with became close friends who knew that we did good work together.
If you are a leader of a team, make sure that you are doing what you can to encourage positive conflict. Positive conflict doesn’t always mean compromise or even civility. What it does mean is the ability to go back to the common purpose as a glue that holds the team together. It means exploring the differences within the team and utilizing those differences to create a better outcome.
If you are a team member, sometimes it takes a little courage to bring up what could be an unpopular perspective. If you find yourself in this position, here are some suggestions for bringing a different perspective to a team:
1. Don’t Be Combative - Sometimes when people expect to fight, they come out of their corner swinging. If you push too hard on a team, the team will naturally push back hard. A better approach is to gently offer your different perspective and then let the team pull more information from you (rather than you pushing it on them).
2. Don’t Assume Intentions - The best way to shut down a productive conversation is to tell the other person what they are thinking or why they are thinking about it. When you tell another person what their intentions are, they will naturally shut down and start fighting you. Don’t assume other people have bad intentions because you might be (and probably are) wrong. Let them share what they are thinking.
3. Go Back to the Why - When a team is disagreeing on something, it is always best to go back to the thing that brings the team together. Why are we doing what we are doing? Reminding the team this from time to time will help reset a difficult conversation and get the team talking again.
4. Let Time Work for You - Sometimes ideas need to marinate for a bit. Many people want to resolve difficult conversations “here and now”, but this is often a folly, especially if people are getting emotional. We don’t think well when we are mad, which is why we like to say, “don’t fight angry”. Don’t be afraid to call a timeout and let people process. New ideas often emerge and tempers settle when given just a little time.
It’s hard to be a part of a village. Speaking out may leave you on the outside looking in, which is an awful place to be. However, being inside the village with silent dissent and unspoken insights can be even worse. Approach conflict in a healthy way to build trust amongst the team members so that the village gets the best of what everyone has to offer.