Creating a Team that Everyone Wants to Be On
When we think about what creates a sense of aliveness and safety on a team, it is common to think we need to solve or get rid of conflict. The truth is that conflict and disagreement are a natural part of how any team or relationship functions.
They are simply signals that change and growth are trying to happen. If we avoid conflict, we only end up stifling or ignoring that change and growth, disempowering ourselves and others. If team members are never pushing one another outside of their emotional comfort zones during discussions, then it is likely that they're not making the best decisions for the organization.
The secret of a Vital Team is to shift how you and your team relate to conflict. A thriving team has plenty of disagreement and conflict! It is how we handle it that creates safety and trust among members of a team. An environment of healthy debate, in which diverse views are able to be shared freely, has energy and dynamism - fostering personal, professional, and organizational creativity and growth. That’s a team that everyone wants to be on.
Changing team culture around conflict requires two areas of effort: firstly, each individual member needs to gain insight and take responsibility for their own personal style around conflict; secondly, the team needs to develop practices that actively invite healthy debate.
Individual Styles of Conflict
There are many approaches to identifying individual conflict styles, but at the simplest level, we either SEEK conflict or AVOID conflict. Besides having a baseline tendency, our tendencies might change depending on the situation - you might be a conflict avoider with your boss and a conflict seeker with your partner, etc. In order to consciously choose which style is most appropriate for the moment, we have to be aware of the pros and cons of each.
Conflict seekers tend to value directness and honesty – they are willing to ruffle a few feathers to express what they see as true. On the other hand they can sacrifice relationship and the objectives of the team for the sake of being right, and can be oblivious to any harm they might cause.
Conflict avoiders tend to value harmony, relationships, team cohesion, and getting along. But this can lead to losing their own sense of direction, neglecting their own needs, or sacrificing their own or organizational growth. Avoiding conflict also creates other types of problems that must be dealt with later.
We want to become aware of our default self-protective tendency, and be intentional about making choices that actually serve the team and the situation we’re in. These are some useful questions to ask yourself around your engagement with conflict:
Questions to ask ourselves around our default conflict style:
When you and your team understand and own your default conflict styles, you can begin to make more intentional choices and develop your capacity for staying with the creative tension of conflict, rather than pushing too hard or shutting it down.
I don’t think anyone ever gets completely used to conflict. If it’s not a little uncomfortable, then it’s not real. The key is to keep doing it anyway.”
― Patrick Lencioni
Team Conflict Style
Once you understand your individual default styles, you can take a look at the whole team’s relationship to conflict. Patrick Lencioni’s Conflict Continuum is a tool to help understand how conflict manifests in a team. On the one end, there is artificial harmony with no conflict at all, and on the other, there are mean-spirited personal attacks. In the middle of that continuum, there is a line where conflict goes from constructive to destructive or vice versa. The sweet spot is this point where a team is having every bit of constructive conflict possible, without slipping over the line into destructive territory.
The majority of teams we encounter live close to the artificial harmony end of the scale. Because we are afraid of the end of the spectrum of mean-spirited personal attacks or utter mayhem, we maintain artificial harmony, avoiding any direct disagreement, conflict, or speaking our minds. In fact, avoiding all disagreement tends to backfire and create simmering resentment that eventually causes unconscious or indirect destructive behavior.
Consider where you feel your team lies on the conflict continuum. What is the benefit of it being this way? What is the cost? How do you personally contribute to the way it is? What do you want to do differently?
The cost of fear of conflict
The benefits of healthy conflict on a team
Transforming Conflict into Healthy Debate
So how do we shift our team’s relationship to conflict so we can harvest the creative fuel it provides?
1. Turn Towards It
When disagreement or conflict occur, turn towards it with curiosity. Something is trying to be seen, heard, or understood. Make use of it, rather than controlling, avoiding, or shying away from it.
The truth is that all voices present a valuable perspective and sometimes even essential information. If everyone is in agreement at the start, it’s likely that something is missing.
Additionally, when voices are withheld or excluded, people work against the solutions - consciously or unconsciously. Allow, welcome, and even invite voices that disagree. Without dissenting voices, your team and your ideas can’t evolve. The goal is to learn to disagree and still commit to a direction.
2. Make It Safe
Creativity requires risk and vulnerability. Shying away from conflict or dominating conflict are both forms of self-protection that prevent access to the creative spark that is IN the conflict. Playing “nice” reduces creativity as much as criticism and force can shut it down. As your team’s leader, your goal is to model and invite healthy debate. It is essential to value the best solutions over being right.
Take off your own armor, own your own part, show curiosity about other people’s points of view, and open up to creative solutions. Be willing to be wrong and step aside. Consider how your presence or attitude might be a part of the problem. This takes a lot of courage.
When leaders model this kind of vulnerability, it provides space for others to do so. It creates a foundation of trust and psychological safety, makes room for dynamic disagreement, and maximizes your team’s effectiveness.
3. Upscale Your Team's Communication Skills
Effective communication begins with understanding yourself and the other, seeing your shared humanity, honoring yourself and the other as whole and valuable. From that foundation we can develop skill in how we communicate both verbally and non-verbally, paying attention to cues in the other and in the environment, and learning to listen with our full attention, to truly understand.
For a team to be able to sustain healthy debate, some communication agreements need to be put in place–brought forward by everyone on the team and put into writing. We recommend creating a Designed Team Alliance to set intentions, guardrails, and agreements before engaging in any high-stakes debate.
(Contact us to learn more about our Team Vitality Day, a great way to uplevel these skills.)
4. Put the Problem Out In Front
A simple, yet effective shift of perspective is to externalize the problem and turn to face it as a team. Bring everyone together on the same side, looking at the problem, not each other. It’s an issue or problem that needs your attention, together.
Choose something to represent the problem – a chair, a post-it-note, any type of physical object – and relate to it as a thing. Get clear on what the actual issue is. Is it about data, strategy? Pace and timing? Or perhaps it’s about personality differences or relationships?
This helps transform the problem from an internal or interpersonal issue to an external challenge you can collaboratively address. Disagreement becomes less personal and more a matter of thoroughly looking at the problem from all points of view.
5. Invite All Points of View
Before seeking alignment between different voices, give them room to be expressed and clarified. Invite all points of view to be articulated and allow the dynamic tension between them to be there. Rushing to take sides cancels out the creativity inherent in that tension.
Look for and pull out each perspective, then try them on, getting clear on what they are. Learn as much as you can about each one. Nay-sayers are not always saying "this is a terrible idea!" – they might just be articulating a different implication of the solution, or pointing out a potential pitfall that needs to be accounted for. Let all views live in the room at the same time.
Instead of just one person carrying an idea forward or objecting, take each perspective on as a whole team before coming up with a solution together. Separating the "Yes" from the "But what about..." voices and exploring them builds trust, connection, and often laughter.
Most of All... Stay Curious, Engaged, and Present
A thriving team sees conflict as a powerful source of creativity and innovation. They stay with it, remaining in conversation with one another, curious and engaged rather than separating into camps that stand in opposition to one another.
The goal for leaders is not to get rid of conflict on their teams, but rather to create a psychologically safe space with clear processes and structures in which conflict can be explored and mined for its value. In an environment of courage, vulnerability, safety, and trust, diverse views fuel dynamic growth-creating a team that generates amazing results, AND that everyone wants to be on.
Authors: Deepika Sheleff & Devi Cavitt Razo
Devi and Deepika are co-founders of Aurum Leadership. With years of experience coaching leaders and facilitating transformative experiences, they brings deep insight, down-to-earth skills and humor to the task of learning how to be human.
Devi Cavitt Razo and Deepika Sheleff are co-founders of Aurum Leadership. They are also close friends who have dedicated their lives to creating powerful, honest, resilient relationships.