What role is conflict playing for your team?

Conflict, do you have a love or hate relationship with it?  For most people, it depends on the families they grew up in and how conflict was viewed.  If you’re from the Midwest (or Bold North as I prefer), you likely grew up in a culture where passive-aggressive responses reign and conflict is swept under the rug.  The reality though is that conflict is essential for growth, personally and professionally.  Let me demystify conflict for you and dare I say, even encourage you to promote it?

One of the key elements of effective teams is trust.  In their book The Leadership Challenge, leadership experts James Kouzes and Barry Posner shared that trust among team members helps encourage interdependence and allows teams to focus on shared goal, instead of self-preservation.  Trust however is not a given among team members, it has to be nurtured.  When mistrust exists on any team it acts as a barrier to cohesiveness and interdependence and can lead people to draw incorrect conclusions about each other’s motives.  Mistrust ultimately leads to the demise of any team.

While there are several ways to nurture trust among team members, conflict plays a critical role.  Only by realizing that they can work through healthy conflict together do team members discover the extent to which they can depend upon each other and trust each other.  Leaning into healthy conflict produces individual and team growth in a way that nothing else can.  It can be uncomfortable, but comfort does not produce growth.

In her TEDGlobal Talk Dare to Disagree, Margaret Heffernan recommended a fresh perspective of conflict: "collaborative thinking."  In her work, Heffernan found that not only does conflict extract the best from teams, conflict also leads to the best final outcomes because it forces people beyond their comfortable "echo chambers."  Leaders that create environments where people feel free to share their ideas and thoughts, even if they are in direct conflict with their own, ultimately create climates of high trust among team members.

Trusting, cohesive, and interdependent teams cannot be formed without going through conflict together.  So, before you are tempted to pick up the broom and sweep conflict under the rug, ask yourself how effective you want your team to be.  If the answer is “very,” then lean in and embrace the benefits that only healthy conflict can produce.