How to Tell Creative Tension From Team Bickering

Last Updated Mar 26, 2010 7:01 AM EDT

Reading the rather contentious comments back and forth between two readers on a recent blog post (check out How to Write Emails That Will Get Read) got me thinking. The life of a project or line manager would be so much better if the team just got along and never argued with each other. Right? Not necessarily. Blind agreement can be almost as destructive to your team's success as ugly friction.

There are times when you feel like a parent on a long car trip. You just want to turn around and yell, "If I have to stop this project and turn around, you're both in big trouble!" Before you step in between team members, though, you might want to take a deep breath and see what's really going on. Here are four traits to look for that differentiate creative tension (i.e., positive, constructive differences of opinion) from unproductive bickering (the workplace equivalent of your kids calling each other a big cootie head).

  1. Is the argument about the work? Smart people don't always agree on the right way to approach a problem, so disagreement is the only way for differing opinions to get a fair hearing. As the manager, watch the tone and the language choices. If the wording (spoken or written) is about the project, you'll see inclusive, positive language: "our outcomes," "project success," "what this means to the department is...." If it's getting personal and petty, you'll hear "you guys in QC," or "Here you go again." In simple terms, personal language means it's getting personal.
  2. Are people asking you and others to pick sides? Public disagreement, whether on email or on wikis and blogs, might be unseemly. But you know you really have a problem when you as the manager start to receive private emails asking you to side with one party or the other. Don't get sucked into the middle of it. First, have them talk to each other. If you think they can keep it civil, air the conversation in a more public forum like a discussion thread, so they can get input from others. Moderate if you have to, and watch for inappropriate behavior like name calling.
  3. Is it impacting the quality of outcomes? Your team doesn't have to be best friends, and sometimes competition and one-upsmanship can lead to great work. When timelines get missed, or the quality of work suffers, however, it's time to speak to both parties together -- out of earshot of the rest of the team. If you have to, speak to them together and listen to what they have to say.Make sure they're focused on the work and they know how their dispute impacts the team and their work overall.
  4. How's your blood pressure? You as leader have to monitor your own reactions, as well as those of the team. Is the tension starting to impact others? Are they commenting on it to you privately? What's your personal tolerance for conflict? When you have to step in, make sure you talk about not only the behavior you're seeing but how it impacts you, the team, and the outcome of the project.
So, to get back to our two posters, zenexpat and 2TallTexan, I value your comments, and you both have some good points. But accusing someone of brain damage doesn't fall under the category of "constructive feedback." Now knock it off or I'll turn this blog around right now and make you walk.

Image by flickr user Ajda Gregorcic, CC 2.0