Why You Need Conflict in Your Team

Last Updated Jun 23, 2008 7:23 AM EDT

Contrary to conventional wisdom, conflict is an essential characteristic of any high-performing team.

Weak teams and committees are full of people who keep their opinions to themselves when together, only to whine when outside the group.

Effective teams get the issues on the table immediately, confident in the knowledge that they are working toward the same goals.

Take Manchester United. From Schmeichel to Keane to Rooney, and not forgetting the manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, the team has always had individuals ready to challenge others -- often very directly -- to raise their game.

The key to success is to ensure that the conflict is positive, not destructive. In business, there are two major advantages to allowing conflict and differences of opinion to influence big issues and decisions:

  • Clarity of solution. Sculptors often remark that as they work on the stone, the final piece reveals itself. Solutions to major decisions are the same. They are crafted and shaped by the arguments and counter-arguments that positive conflict encourages. As weak arguments and ideas are chiselled away the best solution becomes clear.
  • Commitment to action. Allowing and encouraging positive conflict builds rather than destroys commitment. Everyone can be involved in developing the solution, giving your team greater ownership of the solution. As the quality of the final solution is likely to be higher, your people will have greater confidence that it will work in practice.
So how can you promote and develop positive conflict with your team? Here are three steps you can take:
  1. Develop genuine alternatives. There is more than one way to grow sales profitably. A good alternative should
    • Address the issue or opportunity head-on.
    • Enable you to create real performance improvement.
    • Improve your competitive position.
    • Be feasible for your organisation to deliver.
  2. Encourage an 'inquiry mindset'. Harvard Business School's David Garvin argues that business leaders should create an 'inquiry mindset' across their teams, promoting collaborative problem-solving where team members remain open to alternatives and accept constructive criticism. They should avoid an 'advocacy mindset', where decision-making is a win-lose contest involving persuasion, lobbying and the dismissal of others' views.
  3. Recognise the risks. All alternatives have risks and, even with your final solution, these should not be played down. Recognising the risks allows you to plan preventative and contingent actions, giving you and your team even more confidence in the final solution.
Is there sufficient positive conflict in your team? If not, is it time to encourage your people to challenge others' ideas and assumptions and put forward genuinely new alternatives?
  • Stuart Cross

    Stuart Cross is a founder of Morgan Cross Consulting, which helps companies find new ways to drive substantial, profitable growth. His clients include Alliance Boots, Avon and PricewaterhouseCoopers.