From unhealthy team conflicts to healthy debates

#54, Mar 27, 2024

Once upon a time, in a tech org not far away, there was a leader…

An engineering manager was facilitating her team’s discussion. Two software engineers and an architect were arguing on a proposed implementation.

There was so much passion in the room. Everyone was trying to convince the others on which is the best way to move forward.

But the passionate discussion turned into a bad conflict.

People started yelling.
They started interrupting each other.
They stopped being respectful towards each other.

There was so much tension…

Hi 🙂 Hari here.

/* started writing on a Tuesday morning after having a fight with my 6yo stepson over an orange Bakugan */

Today’s tale is focused on how to move your team from unhealthy conflicts to healthy debates.

The 5 stages of team conflict

Conflict exists on your team whether you see it or not.

To have people engage in a healthy disagreement, you first have to:
1) make sure people feel safe to share their opinion
2) make sure people openly share their different point of view

As it is with today’s tale, having checked these 2 doesn’t guarantee a healthy debate. Not at all.

Average teams break when there are disagreements.
Great teams manage their disagreements and use them as a tool.

Using conflict as a tool is a constant theme on the previous issues of A Leader’s Tale.

But now let’s dive deeper and focus on how to have a productive and healthy debate.

Three characteristics of a healthy conflict

This is a screenshot from a real dev team’s assessment report done with our TReE Team Scan tool.

As you can see, conflicts are not handled well on this team.
People are very low on the conflict stages pyramid.

But if you look at the 3rd indicator, you see that when they do have conflicts in their discussion – it’s not handled in a healthy way.

What makes a healthy team conflict?
✅ people bring passion to the discussion
✅ people remain open and respectful at the same time
✅ people don’t feel tension and don’t get tired from the discussion

A healthy team conflict often results with a decision, but let’s focus on the discussion part.

/* explore further the 4 key moments to leading your team I talked about in ALT#51 */

Most team discussions I’ve observed lean toward being safe.
People don’t bring emotions in order to be respectful.
These meetings become boring and get people tired.

Other team discussions are more passionate.
People bring emotions, but at some point stop being respectful and open.
These meetings become tense and get people tired. Again.

But having passion in discussions and having respect are not on the same axis.

You should have both passion and respect to achieve a healthy conflict.

/* I just illustrated this and it looks so similar to Kim Scott’s visualization for her Radical Respect book, which I still haven’t read; I guess I’ve been inspired */

How I keep discussions respectful

As you see from the illustration, the main issue lies with having no respect or losing respect during the discussion.

/* a note here: there’s a big difference between a healthy team that has unhealthy team conflicts from time to time & a team with bad team climate; if you have low psychological safety and lots of interpersonal conflicts – facilitation techniques won’t give you amazing results */

I’ve already written on how to react to negative behavior when I shared tips on handling bad apples on your team. The belonging cues + silent correction is a powerful combo and you can apply it here as well.

But here’s my general approach to keeping debates healthy:
1) Start with personal & non-work related topics
2) Identify & visualize conflict points
3) Facilitate the discussion to be in the middle of the conflict continuum

1. Start with something personal

People tend to have a more productive and less tense team discussions when they’ve not jumped directly into the work-related topic.

You set the stage properly when you start with something that connects you on a human level.

You can try one of these two:

  • Weekend report (or trip report) – everyone shares what they have done this weekend on a personal level
  • Emotional check-in – everyone shares how they are feeling now

I don’t suggest saying ‘hey team, let’s do a weekend report’. It’s better if you can make it organically by sharing & then asking others. And even if you do it artificially by saying the name of the activity, you would get better results afterward.

/* some related links on this: more on emotional check-ins; other ideas on how to connect on a human level + a reference to The Trillion Dollar Coach book that introduced me the weekend report used at Google’s board meetings */

2. Identify & visualize open conflict points

Managing the storming drop is an essential skill for every leader. And I find that it happens more easily when you consciously navigate people through disagreements.

What’s a conflict point
A conflict point is a topic or question people have different opinions on.
That’s it.

If you think the best original soundtrack for movies is composed by Hans Zimmer, but I think it’s James Horner – we have 1 conflict point with 2 different opinions.

/* if you haven’t read Vasi’s latest newsletter on how to present ideas that grabs people immediately, you won’t know why I give an example about Hans Zimmer */

Lots of times when people are arguing – there are no conflict points.
So it’s vital to identify them.

When you know there is a conflict point – just write it down on the whiteboard.
Then validate that you have a good understanding of people’s opinion on the conflict point.
Then write an arrow coming out of the conflict point for each different opinion you hear.

This signals two things to everyone:
1) we have a disagreement (it’s there – on the whiteboard)
2) your opinion is heard (it’s there – on the whiteboard)

When people feel heard – their negative emotions drop.

/* if you continuously visualize conflict points, over time people will get used to it and they’ll feel that conflict is actually good when managed well */

3. Facilitate the discussion

Pat Lencioni wrote a great book on having productive team discussions: Death by Meeting. In it, he introduces the conflict continuum – with artificial harmony and personal attacks at both ends.

In the middle – there’s the ideal conflict point that we discuss today: having open conflicts with respect.

/* by the way, the middle is not really a point, but an area we aim for; we’re constantly moving toward going silent and going aggressive & that’s why we need to be great in this balancing act */

One thing that it’s crucial to note here: personal attacks are consequence of unresolved previous work-related conflicts. Listen to what Amy Gallo has to say on the 4 types of conflict or read her book Getting Along.

I find these facilitation techniques most useful when 2 people on your team are fighting without respect:

  • paraphrasing & validating (basically a soft interruption): I start with something like ‘As far as I understand, what you mean is…’ or ‘What I’m hearing is…’; I then continue with my own wording and ask the person ‘Is that right?’. I usually do this together with the visualization of conflict points.
  • labelling people’s emotions: when you observe a change in the nonverbal language of a person, labelling how they feel and putting it out in the open could defuse the tension. When done right, the phrase ‘It seems like you feel…’ does wonders.
  • parking the conflict: acknowledging that there’s a disagreement and delaying it for the future could work in some contexts as emotions in the future will be lower.
  • giving real-time permission: the opposite of parking is to interrupt the fight and congratulate people for having so much passion. Then just say ‘Go on.’ You could use this moment to remind them of the common goal the discussion is about.
  • giving real-time feedback: if people are not behaving in a proper way – hold them accountable by referring to your team agreements. Of course, if you don’t have such – this won’t work.
  • “have a break, have a KitKat”: no jokes, especially if you have men in the discussion and they are hangry (hungry + angry). One of the most powerful and underused facilitation techniques – just pause the discussion, eat something, physically move around and come back.

/* I’d love it if you write back and tell me which of these is your favorite;

you can also check some more tips here: 6 hints for facilitators, how to tell someone their idea sucks, mining for conflicts */

How to turn unhealthy team conflicts
into healthy debates
(the checklist)

  1. Start your discussion by connecting on a personal level.
  2. Identify and visualize conflict points.
  3. Facilitate the discussion so that people have passion & respect at the same time.

P.S. How to repair relationships after a bad conflict

I chose this week’s tale because I experienced a bad conflict at work. I felt like Red, the character from the illustration above. I did a lot of bad things during the conversation and ignored most of the tips I gave you today.

Bad conflicts happen and will happen, regardless of how skilful you are and how great your team climate is.

And when they happen – I’ve found this video and the suggested approach to be helpful: how to manage your guilt after your not-so-great moments and how to repair the relationship.

… and the team lived happily ever after.

My answer to your question

When I announced the topic of today’s A Leader’s Tale in a LinkedIn post, I received the following question in a comment from Andrey:

We know the theory, but how do you help a colleague open up to a healthy conflict and not bottle it up until he explodes? I presume you’ll say “psychological safety” and yet some people are just not comfortable doing it. I’d love to hear/read some suggestions.

Andrey got it right… I will say psychological safety

If you haven’t read my take on how to make your people speak up – now’s the time.

But also, you have to take into account that different people are wired in different ways.
Some go frequently into conflicts. Others rarely.
Some go deep into conflicts. Others are shallow.

/* check out the Depth-Frequency model that Pat Lencioni introduced in his book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team */

In this case, it sounds like the person avoids conflicts by nature, not because of the team climate.

If that’s the case, my three tips are:
1) mine for conflict during the discussion
2) invite the person to share their perspective first; if they’re last – they’ll avoid sharing what they think if it differs from others’
3) apply 1-2-4-all or a similar structure to the discussion so that the person shares their opinion in a smaller group first.

/* if you have a leadership question – write back and I’ll answer it in a future tale */

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