November 2

10 tips for developing cultural excellence by cultivating productive conflict


How often do your teams have productive conflicts?

Daily? Monthly? Annually?


If cultural excellence, high performing teams, and diversity of thought are your targets, then you need to actively support and instigate productive conflicts.

Wait, productive conflicts?

Yes, but not the ‘full-contact’ style conflict where the debates are happily (and often loudly) shared in the open between parties that cannot be moved off of their dogmatic viewpoints – almost always resulting in neither side understands the others perspective.

And not ‘anti-contact’ style conflict, which often sounds like “We follow Amazon`s ‘disagree and commit’ mantra”, yet in reality what they follow is the “(I am going to silently) disagree and commit (to whatever the loudest voice says)“. In this case, there is no conflict as the discussion is one directional (tell style), and there is minimal plan modification (if any).

So, if those are the extreme ends of the spectrum, what is the ideal target?

Productive Conflict, which is the collective ability for a group of people to express radical candor without destructive behaviors that derail conversation productivity. 

This is a concept that is foreign to most leaders, as evident by being one of the least practiced and least mentored skills in professional environments.

In a productive conflict, the atmosphere sparks and supports healthy debates that readily explore different perspectives. This atmosphere creates fuel necessary for establishing the hallmarks of high performance cultures, including Trust & Safety which result in the development of Clarity, Transparency, & Alignment and makes possible higher level outcomes such as Autonomy, Dependability, Accountability, & Unity.

Which is to say, developing these skills in an organization is paramount to long term cultural stability, growth, and performance.

Here are ten keys that I have found helpful to develop this cultural muscle memory:

1) Actively invite differences of opinion.

Diverse opinions create sound decisions and yet drivers, commanders, and expressives are generally the only communication styles that inherently and readily embrace the friction that comes along with exploring disagreements. This means that in order to receive different ideas, you have to spend effort to draw them out until it becomes a habit for those possessing different communication styles.

2) Make space for the discussion.

Turn a 45 minute meeting into 60 minutes and incite conversation. Send an agenda beforehand to ensure that deep thinkers can come to the meeting prepared. Or consider splitting the discussion into two sessions to ensure that you get everyone contributing.

Yes, I sense the anti-meeting hesitation that this idea sparks for most. I am not advocating for more meetings. I am advocating for more productive meetings which will actually decrease the overall calendar time devoted to meetings in the long run.

3) Ground conversations in “the why”, and be flexible on the how.

Imagine the conflict atmosphere as a large conference room with a single round table in the center of the room. This table represents the central focus of the meeting and it is reserved for only discussion topics that remain on task. As such, it is critical for the meeting or conversation to clearly state what the discussion or decision is, and why it is an important topic for the participants.

If you fail to perform this critical step, the conversation will lack clarity as to what the desired outcome is, and participants will not be able to productively contribute. Some will not know if their perspective fits on the center table and will invariably decide not share. Others will add their tangential perspectives, incorrectly thinking that they fit on the center table.

Setting the ground rules by establishing the why gives everyone equal footing in the discussion.

What often happens is that a leader starts off the conversation with their idea or solution. Generally speaking, many participants will avoid collaborating at this point because they will feel that in order to provide their perspective, they will be attacking your position. On the other hand, if you instead present the group with a conversation intent statement then you will receive greater participation. This may look like “we are trying to achieve ABC, how might we be able to do that?

Does this mean that as a leader you cannot share your ideas? No. Often sharing your idea or solution adds extra context for participants to understand the intent of the conversation.

That said, it is still critical to ground the conversation with the why. This might look like “we are trying to achieve ABC, and one thought that I had was XYZ, but I am really interested to hear what other potential alternatives we can explore.” This can be a very effective way to jumpstart group innovation.

4) Promote idea and identity separation.

A common issue with group ideation is that people inherently feel a sense of individual ownership over ideas. At times they can behave like an idea is an extension of their identity. In this way, they interpret perceived flaws with their ideas in a way that feels personal to them and can trigger a sense of a personal attack.

I’m not talking about blatant assaults like “that is a dumb idea” or “why are you wasting the groups time sharing that thought“. Those have no place in a productive conversation – remember to T.H.I.N.K. before you speak.

Yet, even simple statements such as “I do not believe that will work because of XYZ” can trigger emotional responses that shut down the person who raised the idea. In fact, in some situations a similar impact can by experienced by others in the room who perceived the statement as aggressive.

Returning to the conflict room for a minute, let’s talk about another ground rule that you want to set with the group.

You want to introduce the idea that whenever an idea is put onto the center table, it is no longer attached to the person who shared it. It is just an object on the center table. It has no feelings and does not need to be defended in any way. Any perceived flaws identified with the idea has no reflection on the person who placed it on the table.

I’ve found that this concept can be difficult for some initially as they have a hard time disconnecting their ideas from their identities. Yet, with practice this is a very effective way to promote healthy discussions.

5) Don’t mistake one-on-one conversations as established consensus.

One on one conversations can feel quick and productive, yet solely gaining consensus with independent sidebars creates an echo chamber, not diversity of thought. This is often especially true when there is a hierarchical power imbalance between the two individuals as this sets up an uneven playing field conversation, resulting in a more filtered response, not a more transparent response like many believe.

6) Assemble the right people at the right time.

Often one on one conversations are a great way to seed an upcoming conversation as it gives everyone a chance to think about the topic beforehand, allowing them to come prepared for a great discussion. Even if you believe that there is pre-established consensus, bring the group together and facilitate conversations around the room with each other, because this is the optimal way to ensure that the best ideas bubble up.

If you have not pre-socialized the conversation, then recognize when you need to split a conversation into two parts with the first meeting used to set the stage and define the why, and the second to hold the productive conflict.

7) Enter with curiosity and a desire to understand other perspectives.

Establishing this ground rule for the proper mindset for a productive conflict atmosphere is highly suggested.

We have all seen the most common case here where someone handles counter opinions by doubling down on their idea and cramming it down the throats of others. Instead, make a mindful decision to enter discussions with curiosity and a desire to understand other perspectives.

Then, once the group understands the various vantage points presented, it is easy to compare and contrast and building a new idea constructed from the best components of the diverse perspectives shared.

Simply put, if everyone seeks to understand the perspectives of others first, then conflict melts away and collaboration is all that remains.

8) Monitor for your triggers

When someone challenges your view point does that trigger your fight or flight response? If so, is it only certain people or certain situations?

Learning to recognize your triggers and replacing them with curiosity and a desire to understand others, is a critical interpersonal skill that is worth practicing and mentoring.

What this looks like in practice is:

  • (you share an idea) “I am not sure about this, but maybe we could try XYZ?”
  • (response from group) “I don’t think that is going to work”
  • (triggered response monologue) “I hate Joe. He is always against my ideas!”
  • (replacement monologue) “How is Joe trying to make this idea better? What perspective may I have not see initially?”
  • (response) “I am interested to learn why you say that, can you tell me more?”

Accomplish this and you will become a leader who people gravitate toward because they recognize that you value them and their opinion.

9) Monitor for low participation

Do you believe that you are already following these habits?

Many successful leaders believe that they are already productive conflict experts because of the success that they have had in their career. Sometimes when confronted with the opportunity to see their behavior through the eyes of others, they come to realize that they have been railroading conversation and that productivity was falsely achieved by creating psychologically unsafe environments where participation is low or non-existent.

Even with this awareness, sometimes leaders think that this is okay because they are confident their idea was good and no harm was incurred by everyone just following along. Unfortunately, this is flawed thinking from a leader who possesses low EQ.

Even if the original idea was validated as the optimal decision, it is the healthy exploration of alternatives that establishes trust and buy-in. Without this, you have a group of paycheck players who are just keeping their head down until they can escape. Not participants whom are fully invested in group success.

10) Is your low levels of productive conflict isolated or systemic?

Let’s say that you have one particular leaders who you identify as not creating the right atmosphere for productive conflict. Do you spring into action?

Yes, healthy cultures require active coaching and grooming. And yet, before you do so, evaluate if this is a behavior that is being modeled higher in the organization. Trust builds top down so if this is happening at the top then you need to correct it there first. If productive conflict tone is not set from the top, transparently exhibited by the executive team, then true adoption of these practices will be discounted.

A great way to model these behaviors in a corporate setting is to find a case where someone in the organization had an opinion that made the leadership team rethink a particular stance. For example, “the other day Employee X shared an idea of ABC which forced us to recognize XYZ from a new perspective and alter how we perform DEF as a company.

There is no greater way to prove open door policies are valid, and that challenging the status quo is truly accepted, than to show how a members voice was heard and something has changed as a byproduct. Many organizations like to promote that they have a corporate culture value posted on the walls of “challenge the status quo” or similar, and yet they have never publicly celebrated anyone exhibiting that value. Unfortunately, often the opposite is present. A case where leadership counter challenges those embracing these corporate values with a response of “you need to get on board”.

Where to start with Productive Conflict?

Go set your ground rules today, starting with modeling this behavior across your top ranks.

Tell me how it goes.

I’d also love to see a comment about which of these was the most useful to you.

What are other keys that you have found useful for productive conflicts?


#excellence, #leadership, #management

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