Thoughts From Our Heads

Thoughts From Our Heads


Encouraging Conflict: A How-to for leaders

Wednesday 19th June 2019

Leaders, listen up. You need more conflict in your teams! Yes more, not less. Or rather you need better conflict, not just conflict for the sake of it.


What happens when there is no conflict?

In teams where there is no conflict one of two things is happening. Either everyone is in total agreement or there is disagreement but people don’t want to speak up.  In the first scenario, it could be that you have found the perfect solution and there is total alignment because it is the right thing to do. Or it could be that you have built a homogenous team who all thinks the same way and you all have the same bad idea.

In the second scenario, where people disagree but don’t speak up, there is a lack of trust and safety within the team and people want to avoid the negative consequences of disagreement.

When this happens there is a lack of debate and challenge around ideas which ultimately results in poorer ideas and lower quality work. Conflict challenges us to be better, it forces us to think through plans and consider alternatives. It should do anyway when it is done right.


Encouraging the right kind of Conflict

So as a leader what can you do to encourage the right kind of conflict? Shouting and fistfights are not what we are aiming for! Healthy conflict in which people feel free to challenge, debate and disagree without holding onto grudges and bad feeling. We recommend these four steps to start creating an environment where healthy conflict can flourish.


Build Trust

Healthy conflict cannot happen without trust. In a trusting team, environment individuals feel free to speak up without fear of being judged or criticised. They can own up when things go wrong and are comfortable with their weaknesses because they know they won't be punished for mistakes and that everyone is fallible. Egos and politics take a back seat in these team environments. To build trust in your team try the following:

  • Get to know each other beyond the job role. Provide an opportunity for personal connection in meetings and the workday and facilitate team gatherings that allow people to forge relationships.
  • Be open about your own mistakes and weaknesses. This does not make you look weak, it makes you human. Other people are much more likely to be open with you if you are open with them. Stop trying to portray an image of the perfect leader and be real.
  • Talk about individual strengths. What value does each person bring to the team and does everyone know about it? Create an environment where strengths are acknowledged and celebrated and encourage team members to collaborate using their strengths.
  • Act consistently. Make sure your words and actions are aligned and you do what you say you are going to do. When actions and words do not match it is a big trust breaker.


Encourage Disagreement

As the leader, you can set the tone for conversations and encourage people down a path of consensus or debate. What you choose will depend on the situation. Sometimes tight deadlines and strong alignment might mean you push the group towards a consensus and fast action. On other topics, the consequences might be large and the decision uncertain so it is worthwhile pursuing some more debate. Consider the type of things you say that can close the conversation down or can open it up.


Closing Behaviours

Opening Behaviours

“I think this looks great, is everyone in agreement?”

“This looks great, what other ideas do we have?”

“Does anyone have any doubts about this plan?”

“What doubts do you have about this plan?”

“Let’s get this closed off quickly”

“Let’s make sure we make the right decision”

“Talk to me about solutions, not problems”

“Let’s make sure we understand the problem before we jump to conclusions”


As well as what you say, be aware of your body language when a disagreement comes up. Sometimes it can naturally be frustrating when you are moving towards a solution and someone just can’t get on board. Do you express that frustration through your eyes, body language and hand gestures? These subtle movements can sub-consciously send the signal that you do not want to hear what they have to say.

You can also encourage more debate by withholding your own opinion on a topic until everyone else has expressed their opinion. Once the leader ‘takes a side’ most people will tend to fall in alignment with that opinion.


Identify Strengths

This is part of trust building but it is also a critical part of directly enabling healthy conflict within a team. We tend to have the most frustration and annoyance at those people who are different from us in their personality and working style. When we don’t understand why someone does something a certain way it creates friction and a gap emerges between us. Using a tool like StrengthsFinder can help create those lightbulb moments where people really see their colleague for the person they are and understand and appreciate what they are bringing to the table. Recognising and being able to use all of the different strengths on your team is critical to building healthy conflict. It ensures different viewpoints are brought to the table, prevents group think and gives everyone clarity over their role in the decision-making process. If a team member knows they are the only person in the group with the Analytical strength, for example, they know it is so important for them to apply this strength to help people see the real facts of the situation and not get overtaken by emotions. For another person, they may recognise that they can use their Futuristic strength to help people see a clear picture of the future and what the team is trying to achieve. By bringing this language to teams you create a safe way for people to interact and bring their talents to table to collaborate and disagree better.


Get comfortable talking about Feelings

To move beyond the attack and defence nature of a lot of conflicts you need to get your team comfortable with going deeper to connect with feelings. At Facebook, Sherly Sandberg introduced a quick check in at the start of each meeting, whereby each person shares their 'emotional and professional state'. This is another great exercise for trust building but it also creates comfort around sharing your internal state with others. When a challenging or sensitive topic comes up on the team this practice of sharing feelings should make the team members feel more comfortable to speak up.


These are just a few things you can do to encourage healthy conflict. We would love to hear your ideas about what has worked for you!


For more on conflict management click here