This post explores my observations about conflict in teams. It is prompted by a day spent recently with the executive team of a multi-million pound budget-holding health organisation. This team faces the wickedest of wicked problems in an environment of massive social and political change, multiple stakeholders and huge cost pressure. The wise and thoughtful leader of this team has realised over time that despite the team members’ individual and joint preference for harmony, more conflict is what they need. Without the airing of diverse views and the negotiation of passionately held positions, decisions are avoided or fudged and the system cannot be well-served. Recent research conducted by Bain supports this view, highlighting the low speed and quality of decisions at senior levels in the NHS as the context becomes more and more complex.
During our day, the executive team volunteered to grapple with one of their thorniest problems with help from facilitators. Our hope was that we could contain the heated discussion for them and that the heat would forge a stronger team with greater capacity for conflict going forward. Here are five observations that seem true of many leadership teams when it comes to (as one HRD client once called them) high-octane meetings.
1 The heat starts before the meeting. The run up to such a meeting can be fraught with anticipated danger. Conflict brings a sense of personal danger that is out of perspective. Confronting our differences can have the same physical effects as confronting each other physically – shakes, blushes, curled fists, gallows humour and defensive body language being some of the observable evidence. These signs are present before the meeting even begins and time to establish ground rules, checking in with each person and allowing the settling of the nervous system is well spent.
2 Responses to conflict and disagreement in the moment are very personal. We each play our own habitual roles in the conflict drama! Patterns of attacking, retreating or rescuing behaviour vary from person to person. The more aware individuals in the team are of their own conflict responses the better able they are to overcome them when necessary. Group discussion of these tendencies and patterns also help to depersonalise the heat when it comes.
3 Without some containment of conflict within a decision-making process, it can become overwhelming and too unsafe to try. The role of a chairperson or facilitator in bringing a group back to an agreed and clear decision-making protocol is really useful. This containment is not the same as rescuing people from discomfort but creates the conditions in which conflict stays in service of a higher goal and avoids becoming personal.
4 Various types of inter-personal courage are required depending on our strengths. For some the courage needed is to boldly state a point of view and take up airtime. For some it is the courage to enquire – not knowing what they will hear in response. For others it is the courage to make a proposal that will move the decision forward, not knowing how that proposal will be received.
5 Decompression from a heated meeting is worth paying attention to. Time for sense-making, confirming decisions and checking on the health of the team at the end of a high-conflict debate adds huge value and doesn’t need to take more than 10 minutes.
From my own point of view, facilitation of heated team decision-making is an exciting and challenging role to play. All my own reactions to conflict are in the mix; my ego and my anxieties need plenty of self-management and my over-active reflex to rescue and harmonise needs to be kept in check by a wiser part of me that understands the value of holding a client’s feet in the fire just long enough.