From Politeness to Partnership: Embracing Conflict Drives Effective Collaboration
Many organisations I’ve come across tend to save one area for last while exploring new ways of working: conflict engagement. You could compare this approach to neglecting car maintenance, only to regret the decision when it breaks down. However, this analogy may create negative connotations around conflict, suggesting that it should be managed or avoided. Instead, I believe that conflict should be embraced and even leaned into. Here’s why…
What Research says: Group Development and Stages
Decades of group development research (such as the large body of work done by Susan Wheelan) shows that groups need to go through stages to reach what we might call ‘high performance.’ There is no avoiding these stages, it is simply a function of being a bunch of social creatures who take time to trust each other and work efficiently together.
In the first stage, ‘Inclusion and Dependency’, we are sussing out if we belong, wondering: “Am I accepted? Am I included?” The atmosphere is something like a cocktail party where conversation is surface-level, polite, and tentative. People are looking to the leader for answers.
If we successfully resolve most of the inclusion issues, the second stage is called ‘Counterdependency and Fighting,’ where disagreements emerge about the group’s task and goals. At this stage, people start challenging and questioning one another, leading to the first conflicts that arise.
The Prison of Pretence
When conflicts arise, we tend to either argue and try to win or avoid (consciously or unconsciously) the conflict altogether by trying to be professional and polite and get on with things. However, tiptoeing around conflicts consumes significant amounts of energy that could otherwise be directed towards innovation, problem solving, and creating value.
My colleague Karin Tenelius calls this phenomenon the ‘Prison of Pretence’, where many groups get stuck, like Sisyphus pushing a rock up a hill. This prevents us from reaching higher levels of trust and cooperation needed to be a truly effective team.
And let’s not underestimate the emotional toll of this as Susan Wheelan notes in her book Creating Effective Teams:
“You know you’re in a Stage 2 group when the thought of going to a team meeting makes you feel ill.”
But if we can learn to engage with conflicts, and see the gold on the other side of them, we can move to the next two stages of group development. In Stage 3, we begin to create clarity and structures to become an effective team, and we foster positive relationships.
Very few groups (about one in four) ever reach Stage 4, where groups achieve high trust and efficiency, leading to the magic ‘high performance’ realm. Note that in both these stages, conflicts happen frequently. The difference is, the group knows how to handle them effectively and quickly transform them.
Click here to continue reading for three tips to upgrade your conflict navigation (via the Corporate Rebels website)…
Or watch the keynote version of this blog from the Teal Around the World conference here:
Lisa Gill, included in the Thinkers50 Radar 2020, coaches teams and organisations who are interested in becoming self-managing and facilitates leadership courses that train people in a more adult-adult, coaching style of leadership with Tuff Leadership Training.
She is also the host of the Leadermorphosis podcast, for which she has interviewed thought leaders and practitioners from all over the world about the future of work. Lisa is the co-author of the book ‘Moose Heads on the Table: Stories About Self-Managing Organisations from Sweden’ (2020).