I spend the bulk of my time working with CEOs and their leadership teams on developing and implementing business strategies in high-growth companies. Done correctly, these strategies can create a significant amount of value. Done poorly, they can squander a unique opportunity these companies have worked hard to create.
You would think with all of that pressure and intensity, there would be lots of drama and conflict among stressed-out executives. However, that's typically not the case.
In fact, I find that most teams are playing too nice. In an effort to be more collaborative and be better team players, they end up avoiding conflict, unwilling to engage in any meaningful discussion. As a result, important issues are avoided or glossed over.
As a coach, my job is to teach teams how to fight fair and tackle issues head-on while being respectful and supportive of each other's opinions, even if there is disagreement. Done right, constructive conflict will build a team's ability to advance ideas and come up with better, more creative solutions.
When working with teams on increasing debate and discussion, I focus their attention on five key steps. If your team is playing too nice, give these a try.
1. Reaffirm the relationship.
Before launching into a heated debate, it's best to start by reaffirming your relationship with the other person and your intentions. The fact is, even the most confident person's ego is fragile. If you launch into disagreement first, you'll risk putting the other person on the defensive.
Start tough conversations with "I respect your view ..." or "I want to find a solution that works for both of us ..." or "I appreciate the work you've done here ..." rather than launching into a direct attack. Once you put someone on the defensive, the discussion will quickly go downhill.
2. Don't attack--add to the discussion.
Start your comment with "That's a good point. I have a different opinion I'd like to share ..." or "I appreciate that perspective, and I'd like to add mine to the discussion ..." Don't use the words but, however, no, or disagree, as these will set up a fight.
You can also borrow a technique from improv comedy called "yes, and ..." By starting every reply with this phrase--even if you disagree--you create a positive, open energy that advances the discussion rather than tearing it down.
3. Focus on issues, not people.
It's important not to make things personal, and not to take things personally. If you start a reply with "I don't like your idea," it comes across as a personal attack. By saying "your idea," you are implying that you are not only challenging the idea, but also challenging the individual who proposed it. This will trigger the other person to become defensive.
Instead, start with "That idea has a few challenges I'd like to discuss ..." This puts you and the person on the same side of the table, working together on the idea. Even better, if there are elements of the idea that you like, try saying, "I was thinking about a similar approach and was concerned about ..." Again, separate the person from the idea.
4. Clarify your desired outcome.
One of the best ways to avoid personal conflict is to focus on a common goal. This signals that while you might have a disagreement over a detail or path, you're both aligned at a higher level toward a shared desired future. Try a phrase like "I know we both want this project to be finished by the end of the year ..." or "We all want to make sure we're working efficiently as a team ..."
5. Make the first offer.
If neither party wants to flex or compromise, the team will end up in a deadlock. The fallacy here is that the person who moves first "loses" the fight. It's not a competition, and if you treat it that way, everyone will lose.
Instead, focus on developing and offering options and strategies for meeting the other person's needs, while maintaining your own needs as well. Don't just give in to make it work--but you might need to be flexible and creative. Everyone wins on the team when you work hard to find new solutions.
While not all team conflicts are easy to resolve quickly, with some focus and bigger-picture thinking, the vast majority of them can be resolved. In fact, getting good at resolving tough conflicts is the sign of a mature and high-functioning team.