Martyn Drake: Teams that avoid conflict eschew all hope of excellence

How do we ensure conflict has a positive impact, rather than a negative one?

The word conflict has a broad definition. It can mean a disagreement, an oppositional clash, even a full-on fight.

And for most of us, when we hear the word in a team context, we position it within the negative part of that spectrum. We assume team conflict is a bad thing.

This is a problem.

Conflict, in its broadest sense, emerges inevitably whenever teams aspire to do more than their resources would appear to allow, whenever they can imagine and create more opportunity than they can grasp, whenever they unapologetically demand the very best of themselves and each other. 

As such, conflict is one of the few hallmarks I see in all high-performing teams.

It is not a “bad thing” to be avoided; quite the reverse. In my experience, teams that avoid all conflict eschew all hope of excellence. 

So, how do we ensure conflict has a positive impact, rather than a negative one? How do we embrace and positivise conflict to help raise our game?

In 1974, Kenneth Thomas and Ralph Kilmann introduced a set of descriptions of predominant conflict styles (the Thomas–Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument). It’s not without flaws, but nevertheless offers a useful taxonomy for understanding ourselves and the dynamics of our teams.  

The five styles they defined were: competing (I win you lose); avoiding (agree to disagree); accommodating (OK, you can have it); compromising (you get some and I get some); and collaborating (is there a way we can both get everything?)

Clearly a team whose members default to collaborating their way through a conflict is going to perform far better than one whose members choose competition or, worse, avoidance. But it’s not that simple.

The styles we adopt are driven less by logic, and more by emotion: we are far more likely to accommodate someone we like, and far more likely to collaborate with someone we trust.

But we also have our own default patterns, often because of scars we carry from previous experiences. 

Within teams, these patterns very quickly become norms, and those norms define how well the team will perform under pressure; how far it is prepared to stretch itself; and, ultimately, how successful it has the potential to be.

It is a myth that teams go from “storming”, to “performing”, then on to “norming”, replete with a whole bunch of great behaviours.

In reality, most go straight from storming to normalising their underperformance, because they never fully cross the conflict Rubicon: they never come to know, like, and trust each other enough to use conflict proactively and productively.

So, take a step back now. Look around at the different members of your team. Think back on times of disagreement, and think about the issues or decisions that still, for some, remain unresolved.

Now ask yourself why. What are the styles to which your people are defaulting when they don’t see eye to eye with each other?

Shifting a leadership culture to a place where conflict can become a positive asset isn’t easy, and the “how” will depend on the starting point – how they currently deal with it.

But the main ingredients are these: understanding of each other’s needs; empathy for each other’s situations; a mutual stake in each other’s success; and clear cultural expectations. Expectations that leaders collaborate, that they actively listen to each other and look for creative solutions, and that point-scoring and territorialism lead to a sharp exit.

“How we manage conflict around here” is a huge, vastly underrated element of leadership culture.

And from what I’ve seen, for a surprisingly high number of teams out there, coaching leaders on conflict resolution through collaboration could well be the single best leadership investment you could make. 

Martyn Drake is founder of Binley Drake Consulting

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