Using Constructive Conflict to Pursue Best Possible Outcomes
The mere thought of conflict makes people shudder and not voice their opinions. This is a not good. Not good for the person who is keeping quite due to the fear of conflict. Not good for the team. And, not good for the organization. Especially in a consulting environment, how conflict is or isn’t handled can determine the success of the outcome that is pursued. As Consultants, we go from project to project, where we work with a brand-new team each time. We may have people from multiple teams — client, partner(s), and the core consulting team, making up the project team. Even if the members of our core consulting team are from our own company, chances are we may not have worked with them before.
Most teams in a consulting environment go through the forming, norming, storming, and performing stages, every project team they get assigned to. Unless you are comfortable with conflict and know how to use conflict effectively, there is a tendency to avoid conflict, at all costs. As consultants, we have very little time to build our client’s confidence and trust. After we gain the client’s confidence and trust, we won’t want to do anything that jeopardizes that. And conflict is one of those things that consultants think will jeopardize the relationship they have worked hard to build with their client.
What people don’t realize is that avoiding conflict is not the right approach. As consultants, we have the responsibility to ensure our clients are successful, their outcomes are achieved while not making sacrifices or taking shortcuts. If we shy away from having difficult conversations because of the fear of conflict, then we are not doing what we are supposed to as consultants.
As Adam Grant (American psychologist and author who is currently a professor at the Wharton School) said:
“The absence of conflict is not harmony, it’s apathy. If you’re in a group where people never disagree, the only way that could really happen is if people don’t care enough to speak their minds”
Instead of avoiding conflict, we should embrace it. Conflict, especially constructive conflict, is necessary for teams to thrive. If conflict is managed and handled constructively, teams can harness the collective brainpower to find creative solutions to the most complex business problems.
As Peter Senge (senior lecturer at MIT and the founder of the Society for Organizational Learning) said:
“In great teams, conflict becomes productive. The free flow of conflicting ideas is critical for creative thinking, for discovering new solutions no one individual would have come to on his own.”
Conflict, if handled properly, is healthy for teams to thrive. There is no doubt that conflict is uncomfortable, at the very least. At times, conflict can be disastrous, depending on how it is handled. Like most things, learning to handle and embracing conflict is not going to happen overnight. Trust is a foundation that is necessary for teams to embrace conflict.
Before going into details about how to embrace conflict and use it effectively, it is important to understand the different types of conflict. At a very high-level, there are 3 types of conflict: 1) Task conflict 2) Relationship conflict and 3) value conflict.
According to one of the blog posts from Harvard Law School, which focused on Negotiation, understanding these three types of conflicts, and using targeted conflict-resolution tactics will go a long way to achieve desired outcomes.
According to Katie Shonk, editor at Harvard Law School, Task Conflict involves concrete issues related to work assignments and can include disputes about how to divide up resources, differences of opinion on procedures and policies, managing expectations at work, and judgements and interpretations of facts.
She points out that Relationship Conflict arises from differences in personality, style, matters of taste, and even conflict styles.
Value Conflict, she points out, can arise from fundamental differences in identities and values, which can include differences in politics, religion, ethics, norms, and other deeply held beliefs.
As you can imagine, depending on the type of conflict, strategies to handle the conflict will vary. When there is conflict between people, there is a good chance that they are looking at conflict from different perspectives. One may look at it as a task conflict while other may look at it as a relationship conflict. Even if the two people discussing a topic passionately are on the same page, in terms of the type of conflict, the rest of the team may perceive it differently. This is one of the reasons why people try not to speak up as they assume that doing so may impact the relationship.
Several years back, I was on a project, and we were in a big conference room at the client site. The team was discussing the best approach to implement a business requirement. The delivery team proposed a solution that was OOTB (out of the box) and the proposed solution actually eliminated a manual step and streamlined the client’s business process. Most of the people in the room were ‘ok’ with the proposal. One of the partner team members, a QA Tester, suggested a change, which led to a heated discussion between the PO and me. When the QA Tester asked for something to be added, the Delivery team encouraged discussion and it was determined that what was asked would not only bring in the manual step that was eliminated but introduce yet another manual step in the process as well. So, the team pushed back and suggested that we stick to OOTB capabilities.
The PO (Product Owner) wanted to understand why we can’t just implement what was being asked instead of pushing OOTB capabilities on them. What followed was a heated discussion between the PO and me. The PO said things like: ‘you are our vendor and if we want something done a certain way, shouldn’t you do it that way?’ and ‘why is your team fighting to streamline the business process, if we (the client) are ok with the way things are?’ We went back and forth and for everyone in the conference room, except the PO & I, the conversation sounded like an argument or even a fight. Everyone kept silent and watched to see where this would end up.
After about 20 minutes of heated discussion, we agreed on an approach that made sense to PO. Instead of the two manual steps, we used OOTB capabilities but configured a report, which was also OOTB, so the client could have access to some key data that they needed. Lack of this data is why the client wanted to keep the manual steps. Once the discussion was over, we wrapped up the meeting and everyone waited to see what would happen next. The PO turned to me and asked where the team should go for dinner that evening. I could see that those remaining in the conference room were confused. One of the team members from the partner team asked how is it that after such a heated argument for the last 20 minutes, we are acting like it didn’t happen and are making dinner plans. Another team member chimed in and said they thought I was going to get into ‘trouble’ for pushing the client so hard and ‘arguing’ with the client.
What happened? Why did the PO & I act like nothing happened after our 20 minute ‘argument’ while the rest of the team members feel like we had one of those ‘arguments’ that would damage the relationship? Well, it came down to how people looked at the ‘conflict’.
As William James (an American Philosopher, Historian, and Psychologist) said:
“Whenever you’re in conflict with someone, there is one factor that can make the difference between damaging your relationship and deepening it. That factor is attitude.”
The attitude that the PO & I had regarding this ‘conflict’ was different compared to the rest of the team members in the conference room. We (the PO & I) saw this as a task conflict. We looked at a problem at hand — the right way to implement a business requirement, and we discussed back & forth until we came to the best possible outcome. When we started discussing back & forth and pushing each other, what others in the conference room saw was a relationship conflict. That’s why they thought the relationship between the PO & I will be ‘damaged’ and that I might get into ‘trouble’.
For the PO & I to look at this as a task conflict and push each other in the pursuit for the best possible outcome, we needed one key ingredient — trust. Without trust, there is no way I would have known how the PO would take my pushback. Having built the trust and confidence with the PO, I knew how she would look at this as a task conflict instead of relationship conflict.
As Patrick Lencioni, author of The Five Dysfunctions of a team (and several other fantastic books) said:
“Teams that trust each other are not afraid to engage in passionate dialogue around issues and decisions that are key to the organization’s success. They do not hesitate to disagree with, challenge, and question one another, all in the spirit of finding the best answers, discovering the truth, and making great decisions.”
So, trust is a key ingredient. Another thing that is important is to understand the difference between constructive vs. destructive conflict. When two people disagree or have different viewpoints on a topic, or have different outcomes in mind, then there is conflict.
When people approach a conflict from a constructive standpoint, they talk openly and respectfully, they value diversity of opinions, and the focus is on collaboration. Dealing with conflict constructively leads to new ideas, accelerated change, improved team morale, best possible outcomes, and commitment.
What happens when people approach conflict from a destructively? Well, the opposite. People start blaming each other and finger pointing. They attack one another instead focusing on the problem, meetings become unproductive, people’s opinions are not valued, team members try to win at all costs. This leads to unproductive meetings, damaged relationships, breaks down team collaboration and cohesion, and team ends up demoralized.
Patrick Lencioni talks about something called the “Conflict Continuum”. The image below represents the “Conflict Continuum” that Lencioni talks about.
According to Lencioni, a good portion of companies are on the far end of spectrum in the Conflict Continuum. Specifically, they are in the far left, which is artificial harmony. In a lot of organizations, people don’t want to embrace conflict. And, when you ask why, the answer is usually that they don’t want to ‘hurt’ feelings. When people say they don’t want to hurt feelings or not jeopardize the relationship, what usually happens is that the inability to disagree builds up and people start talking behind someone’s back. Whether it’s the Manager, the Leader of the group, or someone with a strong voice, people don’t want to voice their opinion against them. Again, because they don’t want to hurt ‘feelings’. What happens then is that a few people in the team start talking behind the Manager/Leader/Strong Voice. Sooner or later, this talking behind back surfaces up and the person hears about it. Now, that person is angry and upset or crushed and heart broken. In either case, what should have been about the task turned into about the relationship.
What Lencioni recommends is that teams should start with trust. Once they build trust and know that everyone is looking at pursuing the best possible outcome, then the team should slowly move in the conflict continuum, until they hit the “ideal conflict point”. The image above depicts this being in the middle, but the “ideal” point can vary from team to team. The key is to push each other until you know what that “ideal” point is. This is where teams thrive. Anything beyond this to the right will start becoming destructive. Many teams don’t get to the “ideal” point because they are afraid that they may go into the destructive zone and then there’s no turning back. That’s not the case at all. Teams can recalibrate and come back to the “ideal” point as they learn more about each other and what works within a team setting.
When there is conflict, the goal should be to solve the problem. Not about personal differences — focus on the task, not on the relationship. This means that you take on the challenging and difficult conversations to voice your opinion in a constructive manner.
Conflict leads to commitment. If people don’t weigh in and one person or a few people always make the call, the rest of the team may appear to agree but they are not going to commit to the outcome because their voices were not heard. Even if people’s recommendations are not implemented, they will commit to the outcome, as long as their voices are heard. In most cases, voices are not heard because people don’t want tension between the team members. Meaning, instead of dealing with conflict constructively, it gets ignored and someone makes the decision for the team. When this happens, the team doesn’t commit to the outcome, or the decision made. Without commitment, progress is halted.
Here’s what Lencioni said:
“Teams that engage in unfiltered conflict are able to achieve genuine buy-in around important decisions, even when various members of the team initially disagree. That’s because they ensure that all opinions and ideas are put on the table and considered, giving confidence to team members that no stone has been left unturned.”
So, how do we embrace conflict in a consulting environment? How do you focus on pursuing the best possible outcome for your clients without worrying about damaging the relationship? Here’s a quick summary:
- It starts with Trust. Ensure that you build trust with the client.
- Understand the different types of conflict — task vs. relationship vs. value. Make sure that you and the people that you are working with understand the goal, which is to pursue the best possible outcome.
- Use conflict constructively to push each other until you get to the “ideal conflict point” so the team focuses on the tasks/issues at hand and look at all options, hear different viewpoints, and get to the best possible outcome.
Once you have trust, you can push each other and get to the “ideal conflict point”, which will get the team to focus on pursuing the best possible outcome.
I will end with this quote from Lencioni: “”When there is trust, conflict becomes nothing but the pursuit of truth, an attempt to find the best possible answer.”
Originally published at https://www.linkedin.com.