Tanveer Naseer

Leadership Coach, Speaker, and Writer

The Secret To Better Conflict


The following is a guest piece by HBR columnist (and fellow Canadian) Liane Davey.

I am a strong believer that the scarcity of high performing teams is due to our inability and unwillingness to engage in productive conflict. Often, the problem is too little conflict: teams filled with passive-aggressive members who would rather take their gripes underground. Sometimes, the problem is a dysfunctional or even vicious group who spend all their energy going back and forth instead of moving forward.

So if no conflict is a sure path to oblivion, but too much conflict is equally risky, how do we avoid going from ditch to ditch and instead find a path to productive conflict somewhere in the middle? The secret lies in changing your assumptions.

First, let’s start with a little experiment. Imagine the person on your team who rubs you the wrong way. This is someone you just don’t see eye-to-eye with. Somehow all of your interactions with this person are tense and uncomfortable—even over the most innocuous thing. Can you picture that person? Now I want you to imagine receiving this email from them…

“I got the draft of your presentation that you distributed. I found a few mistakes. I have a couple of ideas for how to make it better. I’ll drop by your office at 3pm to discuss.”

How does that email make you feel: Angry, defensive, anxious? Are you suddenly looking for an excuse to be out of your office at 3? All of those are very common reactions. “What a jerk, looking for mistakes in my presentation!” “Yeah, I BET she has a few ideas—thinks she’s so smart!”

Now, wipe that person out of your mind. Instead, think of the person on your team who you get along really well with. You always feel like this person has your back. Have you got someone in mind? Now, imagine you get this email from them…

“I got the draft of your presentation that you distributed. I found a few mistakes. I have a couple of ideas for how to make it better. I’ll drop by your office at 3pm to discuss.”

Now how do you feel: Relieved? Grateful? Interested and looking forward to the conversation at 3?

Now you have a sense of how your assumptions and prejudices have a profound effect on your experience of conflict. Negative assumptions lead to adversarial and combative interactions whereas positive assumptions lead to productive conflict that makes us better.

Better Conflict Bootcamp

Spend two weeks intently focused on changing your assumptions and you’ll radically change your experience of conflict—you might even enjoy the odd tussle by the end.

Step One: Awareness
You can’t start the shift to more positive assumptions until you are aware of the negative assumptions you are currently making. For the next few days, pay attention to how you react to things your teammates say and do. Tune in to your body because it will give you the clues: When does your heart race? What makes you clench your fists? When do you raise your voice? When do you shut down and back away from a conversation?

Each time you feel yourself reacting to a teammate, stop and think about what’s going on for you. What am I assuming or inferring that is leading to the negative reaction? Hint: the things that cause the biggest reaction tend to be assumptions that are about the other person’s character or motives or about your character or capability.

Did you assume that your teammate is a jerk, or stupid, or out to get you? Did you internalize things about yourself such as I’m not smart enough, I’m not likeable, or I’m not going to make it here?

Just becoming aware of your negative assumptions will be a valuable (if somewhat uncomfortable) step.

Step 2: Replace negative with positive assumptions
Once you are aware of the conclusions you’re jumping to, you can redirect yourself. There are a couple of effective techniques for this. The somewhat easier version is to replace an assumption about a person’s character with an attribution about the situation. Instead of “he’s a jerk,” you might say “this stressful situation caused him to interrupt me a lot.” This will make you more generous and empathetic.

The same holds for inferences you make about yourself. Instead of concluding that your teammate thinks you’re stupid (a blanket statement about your worth), make it about your behaviour in the situation. “I didn’t present enough evidence for why this is the best approach.”

Framing concerns as situational still includes negative feelings about your teammate’s behaviour, but the situational interpretation will feel much less adversarial and judgmental and lead to more productive conflict. If you master that approach, you can push yourself to the more advanced version, which requires you to find the positive motive behind words and actions that you don’t like.

Let’s use the email from the example above to demonstrate how to look for positive motives. When you read the first email, your reaction was probably that the person was out to get you or somehow trying to make your life miserable.

The alternative assumption is to assume that the person was looking out for you by making sure you didn’t present a document with errors in it. The negative assumption to the comment about sharing some ideas at 3 o’clock is that the person is trying to show you up. The positive assumption is that he is interested and wants to collaborate.

Remember, these aren’t preposterous assumptions. In fact, you proved to yourself how realistic they are, because they were the assumptions you made when the exact same email came from someone you trust.

Step 3: Engage in the conversation
So far, you have improved the quality of conflict on your team and you haven’t even opened your mouth. You’ve become more aware of your inside voice and you’ve reprogrammed it to say things that are positive instead of negative. Now is when those new assumptions pay off.

Ask a question and soak up all the value you can get from your teammate’s diverse perspective. “You think I should take the presentation in a different direction. Tell me more about your vision for where to take the story.” “You disagree with me about a couple of the data points in the document. What are you basing your numbers on?”

It is immediately different. Now it’s two people trying to solve a problem together instead of two people in a tug of war over who is more right. As soon as you change this framing for the conversation, you engage a different part of the brain and you have a much more valuable discussion. You probably don’t even know that you’re having conflict because it feels just fine.

Effective teams need conflict to function. Conflict allows you to come to terms with difficult situations, to bring together diverse perspectives, and to make sure solutions are effective and thorough. But the way you think about your teammates affects the quality and productivity of your conflict.

Positive assumptions make you open to progress; negative assumptions mire you in the past. It’s time to get over your assumptions and prejudices and start getting value from everyone on your team.

Liane Davey, Ph.D. is the NYT Bestselling author of “You First: Inspire Your Team to Grow Up, Get Along, and Get Stuff Done”. She is the Vice President, Team Solutions at Knightsbridge Human Capital. Liane is also a keynote speaker and writes for HBR.org, Psychology Today, and at her online community www.ChangeYourTeam.com. Follow her on Twitter @LianeDavey.

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  1. On March 11th, 2014 at 2:07 PM William Seidman said:

    This blog frames the issue of team performance in an two ways that I believe are incorrect – that conflict is good for performance and that the source of conflict is inter-personal avoidance of conflict. I believe that both perspectives are missing the implications of much of the recent research on motivation and the neuroscience of learning.

    In our long-time work with high performing teams and team leaders, the single most important factor in achieving consistently high performance is that the team takes the time to develop and embrace a collective, compelling purpose that is about achieving a social good. This aligns well with Dan Pink’s work in Drive about the importance of purpose to motivation. In addition, there is neuroscience evidence that focusing on a purpose, particularly writing down a collective purpose, suppresses fear portions of the brain associated with dysfunction and stimulates portions of the brain associated with empowerment. Finally, other research (see David Rock’s Your Brain at Work) suggests that most conflict is highly destructive while shared group functions promote productivity. Positive, proactive alignment on achieving something important naturally eliminates much unproductive conflict without any need for personal self-analysis.

    A second thing these high performing teams do is to make sure they have a clear, demanding path to mastery so everyone knows the work that needs to be done to achieve the purpose. Everyone therefore knows what is needed from each of them, which eliminates many areas of confusion and conflict while still producing great results. This is Pink’s notion of “mastery.”

    A third thing they do is build an infrastructure of follow-up to ensure that everyone has the attitudes and skills needed to effectively perform the work required. Everyone trusts that all of the others on the team are really good at their jobs, which makes it easy to respect each other. There is hardly any conflict when there is great trust in the teammates’ abilities. This is Pink’s notion of “autonomy.”

    When these are combined – purpose, path to mastery and actual mastery – productivity and effectiveness soar without the need for any form of conflict. Why have conflict when a team using current leadership science can actually perform better without it?

  2. On March 11th, 2014 at 10:16 PM Blair Glaser said:

    This is so right on, Liane. The same is true for personal relationships. Assumptions block our ability to respond proactively and we become awash in reactivity rather than leadership and collaboration. Great post.

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