Conflict can be good. That’s according to an insightful email message that I received this week on behalf of Dr. Robyn Odegaard, CEO of Champion Performance Development, founder of the Stop The Drama! Campaign, and author of the book Stop The Drama! The Ultimate Guide to Female Teams.
She explains that “productive conflict” allows female athletes to address disagreement and resolve the conflicts that inevitably arise on teams so team members can work together more effectively and realize their full potential on and off the field. I think this applies to business, too.
For example, read the following quote from Robyn and replace the word practices with the word meetings: “I have worked with teams that ‘brag’ about how well the members all get along, that practices aren’t contentious, and that there really aren’t any problems. However, decisions are not being made, communication is stifled, and every so often, a major blow-up finds team members screaming at each other in the middle of practice. Silence does not mean agreement.” Sounds like something that happens in business, doesn’t it?
According to Robyn, it’s important for team members to learn how to disagree with each other and state their opinions. She warns that if no one speaks up, the team will face bigger problems in the future. “
If two or more people are engaged in conversation and no one is disagreeing, someone is lying. That means whether they say it aloud or not, people always have different ways of looking at the same situation. Playing nice in this manner can really hinder a team’s true potential. It’s important to air issues and concerns and talk through sticky problems as they arise before they fester into something bigger,” she notes.
Robyn offers the following five suggestions to help female athletes and their coaches understand how productive conflict works and can benefit the team as a whole. I’ve replaced her references to practices and coaches with meetings and leaders, and you’ll see that her advice is applicable in the business world, too.
1. Believe productive conflict is a good thing. Conflict has a bad reputation. It makes people uncomfortable, and the general feeling is if two people are disagreeing it should be stopped. Certainly not all forms of conflict are good – screaming or silent stalemates are bad for everyone and unproductive. Productive conflict allows teammates to approach and resolve disagreement, misunderstanding and differences of opinion using a standard, agreed-upon set of guidelines.
2. Start the conversation. The leader really needs to set the tone to open the door for a genuine exchange of ideas. He or she may start by saying something like this when opening up the dialogue to address a problem: “We may not all agree, but let’s hear what everyone has to say about this matter.” Don’t shoot the messenger or respond in a negative manner to ideas. Ultimately that tells everyone on the team that it is not safe to speak up.
3. Take the lead. A leader can open a discussion about productive conflict by asking the team what it takes to be respectful when sharing a dissenting opinion and then, together, work to agree upon a definition. Once agreement is reached, ask each team member if they are willing to use it to become a more successful team.
4. Professional skepticism is what makes good ideas great. When everyone just nods and smiles to avoid conflict, bad ideas are implemented, and hurt feelings may become institutionalized on the team. Being willing to disagree in a respectful manner can help bring the best ideas to the surface or air concerns that, until this point, have been hindering performance.
5. Reward bravery. When someone shares a dissenting opinion, the leader can step in and ask if anyone wants to add to the thought. Say “How can we make this suggestion even better?” Thank the team member for sharing her idea with the rest of the team. Even a “bad” idea can be the stepping stone the team needs to get to a great one.
Of course, these concepts would need to be tweaked based on the experience of the team members, the organizational culture, and the mandates the team is expected to live up to. However, the underlying insights that Robyn outlined for athletic teams apply to business teams, too, particularly young teams where employees are just starting to learn how to work together in a professional environment. In other words, being a good leader and developing a strong team in business doesn’t mean you can’t learn lessons from team-building in other areas of life.