How Cultivate Healthy Conflict in Your Team

photo credit: noii’s the boss via photopin (license)

I’ve been around a lot of Christian leaders and teams in my life. And I’ve seen one consistent characteristic that kills a team’s trust for each other. It leads to disengagement in team members. It stifles creativity. That characteristic is the avoidance of healthy conflict.

Many Christian leaders act like conflict is a bad word. They avoid it at all costs. After all, conflict doesn’t feel very Christian.

But if God has called your team to a God-sized vision, if He has called you to walk with Him to accomplish something bigger than you can do alone, then you must learn to engage in healthy conflict.

Producing healthy conflict isn’t as daunting as it may seem. Here are seven suggestions for introducing your team to healthy conflict.

1. Let the team make important decisions

In business and ministry, teams form for one goal: to achieve results. Teams do this by:

  • discussing important issues,
  • making important decisions,
  • communicating those decisions through the organization, and
  • ensuring that the organization achieves the desired results.

If a team doesn’t have important decisions to make, they will be disengaged and apathetic. No one wants to be on a team that exists to merely listen to information and then communicate it to others. That is uninspiring and a big waste of time.

If you give your team important issues to discuss and important decisions to make, it necessitates healthy conflict.

2. Make sure the right people are on your team

Healthy conflict begins when you have emotionally healthy people on your team. The wrong person on your team can sabotage healthy conflict in several ways:

  • Emotional derailment — when a person continually expresses intense emotions that distract the team from making decisions.
  • Continual bad attitude — when a person arrives at the meeting with a negative attitude and has a bad attitude about everything.
  • Embodied Disengagement — when a person gives body signals that he doesn’t want to be there and doesn’t care about the decisions being made. This physical communication may include such actions as crossed arms, leaning back in their seat, avoidance of eye contact, scowling facial expressions.

Make sure that you have emotionally healthy people on your team so that you can have healthy conflict.

3. Apologize if you haven’t cultivated conflict

If you lead a team, it is your responsibility to cultivate healthy conflict. If your team doesn’t engage in productive conflict, it is your fault.

If that’s the case, then apologize to your team. Let them know that you are sorry that you haven’t cultivated healthy conflict. Let them know that you want to change this and why you believe that healthy conflict is good.

This apology sends a powerful message to them that you take responsibility to engage in healthy conflict in the future.

4. Encourage robust discussion while it’s happening

If you want to cultivate healthy conflict in a team, then give attention to it when it happens. Leaders can say, “Tim and Jane, you all are having a great conversation about this issue. Great job!”

You can affirm someone by saying, “Great job attacking Jane’s idea but not attacking Jane.”

Encourage your team when they disagree in kindness.

Whatever you pay attention to gets repeated. Pay attention to conflict.

5. Establish what silence means.

Silence is a telltale sign that people are avoiding conflict. But there are two types of silence:

  • Good silence occurs when people need time to think. Allow space in your meetings for people to internally process.
  • Bad silence occurs when people are not saying something that they want to say. This type of silence creates distrust because no one knows what everyone else is thinking.

As a team, establish what silence means. Does it mean agreement or disagreement? Personally, I prefer “silence is disagreement.” In this case, if a person remains silent during a decision, the team assumes that the person disagrees with the decision.

“Silence is disagreement” forces everyone on the team to vocalize their thoughts about a decision. It gives everyone on the team permission to say, “I notice that you’re not saying anything. Tell us what you disagree with because your opinion is important in making this decision.”

6. Establish a clear process for making a decision

Teams need authority to make decisions. And they need a clear process for making them.

Are decisions made unanimously? (Not a good idea if your team is larger than 3 people.)

By 80% consensus?

What happens if someone strongly disagrees with a decision?

Can one person’s strong disagreement halt movement forward?

There are no right answers to these questions. There are only the best answers for your team. Lead your team in establishing a clear process for making decisions.

7. Establish clear expectations for “after the meeting”

Nothing kills alignment and agreement more than the meeting after the meeting. Your team needs to feel safe enough to express their honest opinion in the meeting so that they don’t need to express it after the meeting.

If people have impromptu meetings after the meeting, it undermines the trust that the team has for each other. It undermines the trust that the rest of the organization has for that team.

Your team needs to know the expectations for meetings after the meeting. For example, teams can engage in robust dialogue and disagreement while in the meeting. But, after the meeting, your team presents a unified front.

Until you establish clear expectations for meetings after the meeting, your team will engage in them. And this practice will sabotage your team.

As a leader, you must cultivate healthy conflict in your team. These suggestions can help you get started.

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Questions: Does your team have healthy conflict? If not, what’s your next action to change the team’s culture?