Leading Blog


Are You Living in Conflict Debt?

The Good Fight

WHEN YOU AVOID the tough discussions and decisions, you hold your business back, make your team dysfunctional, and cause yourself stress. You set up a kind of conflict debt.

Conflict debt, writes Liane Davey in The Good Fight, “is the sum of all the contentious issues that need to be addressed to be able to move forward but instead remain undiscussed and unresolved.”

The solution is more conflict, not less. “Rather than working through the conflicts that will help our organizations move forward, we avoid, postpone, evade, duck, dodge, and defer them.” We need to work through our contentious issues.

Most of us are conflict adverse—as is the author—and she explains why we are that way. We have been conditioned to get along, but we often take that to mean that we should avoid all conflict or simply accommodate others. But she concludes, “conflict is a natural part of healthy relationships and a critical defense against unhealthy ones.”

Conflict is normal. And we either can either make it better or worse. And that doesn’t happen by assuming we are right. We need to be curious about the other person or people and where they are coming from.

After building the case for conflict, Davey turns here attention to avoiding unnecessary conflict and establishing the ground rules for productive conflict. She calls this the Conflict Code.

To begin, you need to establish a line of communication. That is, build the trust before you need it.

Next, create a connection so that you can problem-solve as allies rather than fight as adversaries. “When a discussion gets heated, the facts and information presented provide excellent clues about what is important to the players. Pay attention to what is (and isn’t) said to zero in on what’s at stake.

Finally, if you have completed the first two steps, you are in a good position to contribute to a solution. She offers six techniques to help you contribute a solution without bulldozing the others at the table.

In part 3, Davey focuses on “what you can do to systematize conflict so it’s a part of the standard operating procedure of your team.” This section is worth the price of the book alone. Her examples resonate as they seem to be so much a part of everyday team dynamics.

Clarify Expectations

Clarifying roles and setting clear expectations from the beginning avoids a lot of unpleasant conflict and drama. “If everyone is clear on their role and the value they are expected to add, they will be less likely to disappoint, or be disappointed by, others in the group.” To this end she has created the U Tool.

The U Tool documents “what you need from your superiors, what your team will add, and what you expect from the layers below you” and “when that value should be added.” She covers issues that the U Tool can help to neutralize like the absentee boss and micromanaging. It also helps to raise the bar on expectations.

This situation is something I see in my work as an advisor:

Adding value at the wrong level can create considerable conflict in your team. First, when you neglect the strategic issues, you fail to provide the direction and context that your team needs from you. In this case, you become the absentee boss and set your team up to fail. The other issue is that as you dip down into issues and choices that should be made in the next level, you disempower the leaders whose job it is to be making those decisions. It’s demoralizing when you do their job as it robs them of their opportunity to add value. I’ve even seen leaders more than two layers above encroaching on the work of the individual contributors. One of my clients admitted sheepishly that he had been “belly-down in the bottom of the U.” He was simultaneously disempowering two layers of his team.

Normalize Tension

When we think about teams we think about conflict-free members all rowing in the same direction. This ignores he reality and our ability to deal with it—if we do. “You can be a good team player and still create tension with your teammates.”

Davey introduces a metaphor called The Tarp. Imagine a group of people stretching out a tarp and each pulling in a different direction. If it’s all in balance it works. But what happens if one team member pulls harder than the others What if the strength of one member overwhelms that of his teammates? What if one of the team members gets fed up, rolls her eyes, and walks away?

To get the best possible answer out of a team, you need to pull in different directions, always optimizing the tension on the system—never pulling so hard that you take the team of course, and never so gently that your angle isn’t covered. That’s what productive tensions should feel like.

The common issues are when a team member is pulling too hard dominating the discussion. Or the opposite when someone is under contributing by staying silent or gives up presenting their point of view.

The Conflict Habit

Make productive conflict a habit. A habit you “engage in routinely without requiring significant attention and effort.”

To add productive conflict into your organization, you might begin by clarifying expectations, add then adding some low-intensity conflict by offering another perspective, define consequences, and highlight assumptions. Improve your feedback by not loading up on judgments but observations. (Very helpful section.) She also suggests using humor and code words “to draw attention to troublesome behavior in a gentler way.”

Finally, encourage productive conflict in your meetings. “Instead of creating a forum for productive conflict to be surfaced and resolved, meetings are often just hour-long displays of the power and politics on your team. The actual work of discussing and coming to a solution is relegated to side conversations and he dreaded meeting-after-the-meeting.”

So often we see teams living in conflict debt. They let issues pile up until someone leaves or blows up. Introducing productive conflict will take the pressure off, encourage cooperation and help you get things done.

The Good Fightis a well-written book on a critical issue. The examples are helpful and it includes a bonus chapter on how this can help at home. Templates and worksheets for the U Tool and for creating a diagram of your own Tarp are available on her website.

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Posted by Michael McKinney at 08:12 AM
| Comments (0) | This post is about Problem Solving , Teamwork



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