If you are not generating the right type of conflict, your organization may lack innovation.
Many of today’s organizational leaders avoid conflict because they’ve been trained to build cohesion in teams. They have gone to the outward bound type of team building exercises, done the trust falls, and have come away from it all with the misguided impression that their job is to ensure that the team gets along, that the more cohesive and connected the team the better the result, and that conflict is destructive.
The same leaders also often talk about igniting the "spark of innovation." But we need friction in order to ignite sparks. Without healthy and productive conflict we can’t generate friction. Simply put:
no conflict = no friction = no sparks
The challenge is how to ignite enough of the right type of conflict to bring the best out of people.
We can become better at promoting healthy conflict by distinguishing between conflict with a person and conflict about his or her idea—between attacking an idea not the person behind it. It’s okay for your team to be fighting, so long as they are fighting about the right things: ideas.
Challenge another person’s idea by thinking about the situation in terms of three points drawn onto a balloon: One point is you, the second is the other person, and the third is the person’s idea.
What happens when you squeeze two of the points together? The third gets pushed away. So if you close up the distance between you and the other person—and put some distance between you and the idea—you create resonance between you and the person.
By addressing a person’s perspective in this way, you are able to demonstrate your appreciation for the person while still challenging their idea. This approach may help prevent people from taking things personally.
What might it sound like when you express that an idea is not in alignment with your own thinking? Use any variation of these statements to highlight curiosity rather than judgment:
- "I like your way of thinking, and your ideas are usually very creative. But I am really struggling with your current suggestion. What am I missing here?"
- "I love working with you and I’m having difficulty understanding the value of the idea you just offered. Here are some considerations I feel we should make before running with your idea. Can we explore those together?"
- "I want to like your idea, and right now I don’t. Would you help me understand why it makes sense for us?"
By asking questions such as these, you allow others to feel that you respect them and are debating their ideas rather than judging them because of their ideas. Doing so promotes healthy conflict, and others will not hesitate to bring you even those seemingly whacky ideas that prove to be invaluable.
—Henry Evans and Colm Foster are coauthors of Step Up: Lead in Six Moments that Matter (Jossey-Bass). Henry is the founder and Managing Partner for Dynamic Results, LLC, and has over 10,000 hours of experience coaching leaders. Colm Foster, Ph.D. is an executive coach for Dynamic Results, LLC, and a member of the adjunct faculty of UCD, DCU and the Irish Management Institute.