From the outside, the family and their business is the envy of all. Karl is the most senior partner and runs every meeting. I have sat in on the meetings Karl chairs. They are a model of efficiency and decorum as he proposes his ideas calmly to the other owners. Other than some perfunctory questions from the them, his ideas carry and another meeting closes. It was impressive and I couldn't figure why the family farm was struggling to move their company forward. Then it hit me. There is no healthy conflict!
That's right. Conflict is vital for any relationship, whether business or personal, to last. Unfortunately, conflict is often considered taboo for many reasons; cultural, personality types, or out of respect.
The other extreme is that conflict occurs only when someone on the team has reached the point of "I just can't take it anymore", and blows a gasket, leaving everyone, including employees, slack-jawed. Tempers flair, words are said and everyone goes away figuratively bruised.
Healthy Conflict is….Healthy!
It is crucial to draw a clear distinction between productive conflict and destructive fighting mired in personal turf wars. The unhealthy conflict damages relationships, hurts feelings, and actually squashes future healthy conflict.
Healthy teams can engage in healthy conflict to get to the best possible solution in the shortest time. Conflict is efficient. Avoiding conflict actually takes more time, as the same issues and topics arise again and again with no resolution.
What happens when teams don’t engage in healthy conflict? Unseen dangerous tension begins to build and unchecked conflict pops up. Instead of dealing with problems, they procrastinate and the problem becomes even larger until it can take on a life of its own. Team members began to withdraw from the conflict and resort to back-channel personal attacks which are often far nastier and harmful than any heated disagreement. Ultimately trust is fully degraded and the team becomes stuck in a vicious cycle of avoiding important but controversial topics. The same issues are never resolved and continue to plague the farm.
Steps in Overcoming Fear of Conflict
- Trust is first. Team members must trust each other and believe that whatever is done, it is for the best of the company or family.
- Openly acknowledge that healthy conflict is productive and many teams seek to avoid it. Talk with your leadership team about conflict and get their perceptions of healthy conflict.
- If the healthy conflict is absent, someone should assume the role of the conflict This trusted person extracts the buried disagreements and brings them to the surface. They must have the courage, maturity, and confidence to call out sensitive issues and encourage the team members to work through them together.
- Encourage each other during debate to not retreat from healthy and cordial conflict. This gives each other the courage to keep going when the going gets tough.
- Everyone has a preferred mode of communication and they also have a preferred mode of dealing with conflict. My favorite assessment is the Thomas-Kilmann (TKI) which is a great way to break the ice in a facilitated leadership meeting.
- Senior leadership shows restraint and doesn't try to solve conflict but encourages team members to work it out together.
- The wisdom to avoid unnecessary conflict. Not every idea or thought is worthy of impassioned
The earlier a team learns to engage in healthy conflict the better. I observed a very successful family farm where the founder, also the father, mediated all the disagreements between his sons. They were never given the opportunity to air differences, flesh out new ideas, or engage in healthy debate on the merits of the business direction. The debate would continue to a certain point and then Dad would step in and decree the solution. There was an uneasy truce until Dad the mediator suddenly died, leaving the family and the business in turmoil. Ultimately the farm was able to overcome this setback, but valuable time and resources were spent, as well as a lot of unnecessary stress and damaged family relationships.
Wouldn’t it have been better if the problem hadn’t been allowed to reach that point?
Next in the series: How to work on commitment with the farm team