From Politeness to Partnership: Embracing Conflict Drives Effective Collaboration
Many organisations I’ve come across tend to save one area for last while exploring new ways of working: conflict engagement. You could compare this approach to neglecting car maintenance, only to regret the decision when it breaks down. However, this analogy may create negative connotations around conflict, suggesting that it should be managed or avoided. Instead, I believe that conflict should be embraced and even leaned into. Here's why!
What Research says: Group Development and Stages
Decades of group development research (such as the large body of work done by Susan Wheelan) shows that groups need to go through stages to reach what we might call ‘high performance.’ There is no avoiding these stages, it is simply a function of being a bunch of social creatures who take time to trust each other and work efficiently together.
In the first stage, ‘Inclusion and Dependency’, we are sussing out if we belong, wondering: “Am I accepted? Am I included?” The atmosphere is something like a cocktail party where conversation is surface-level, polite, and tentative. People are looking to the leader for answers.
If we successfully resolve most of the inclusion issues, the second stage is called ‘Counterdependency and Fighting,’ where disagreements emerge about the group’s task and goals. At this stage, people start challenging and questioning one another, leading to the first conflicts that arise.
The Prison of Pretence
When conflicts arise, we tend to either argue and try to win or avoid (consciously or unconsciously) the conflict altogether by trying to be professional and polite and get on with things. However, tiptoeing around conflicts consumes significant amounts of energy that could otherwise be directed towards innovation, problem solving, and creating value.
My colleague Karin Tenelius calls this phenomenon the 'Prison of Pretence', where many groups get stuck, like Sisyphus pushing a rock up a hill. This prevents us from reaching higher levels of trust and cooperation needed to be a truly effective team.
And let’s not underestimate the emotional toll of this as Susan Wheelan notes in her book Creating Effective Teams, “You know you’re in a Stage 2 group when the thought of going to a team meeting makes you feel ill.”
But if we can learn to engage with conflicts, and see the gold on the other side of them, we can move to the next two stages of group development. In Stage 3, we begin to create clarity and structures to become an effective team, and we foster positive relationships.
Very few groups (about one in four) ever reach Stage 4, where groups achieve high trust and efficiency, leading to the magic 'high performance' realm. Note that in both these stages, conflicts happen frequently. The difference is, the group knows how to handle them effectively and quickly transform them.
Tips to Upgrade Conflict Navigation
1. Practise Relationship Conversations
Relationships are a fractal of the groups we are part of so it is valuable to tend to them, like plants in a greenhouse. The Harvard Business Review authors, Kerry Roberts Gibson and Beth Schinoff, suggest that relationships in the workplace are not fixed and can be improved with effort:
“Most people see coworker relationships as being fixed: Good ones will always remain happy, and bad ones will never get better. Consequently, we take our healthy relationships for granted [...and we] write off those that have soured, instead of taking steps to improve them. This, too, is misguided, because coworker relationships are actually fluid: Even the most toxic ones can be repaired, and the most positive can quickly spiral downward.”
At Tuff Leadership Training, we practise (and train others in) a conversation called a ‘Pebbles Conversation,’ to maintain healthy relationships. The conversation aims to address discomfort or misunderstandings early on, before they become bigger issues that can affect the relationship. To maintain healthy relationships, it's important to have a "clean system" where we're not constantly second-guessing the intentions or actions of others. This can be compared to having a pebble in our shoe - it may not bother us at first, but the longer we ignore it, the more uncomfortable and painful it becomes.
For example, the other week my colleague Kajsa asked if she could bring up a pebble with me. This question still makes my heart race, but I knew it was important to address and, like broccoli, it would be good for me. Kajsa shared that my tone in a previous Slack message came across as a bit demanding and insensitive, making her feel like I was not an equal partner in improving our website but more like a 'rockstar'. This was affecting our relationship, and she wanted to work on it.
She acknowledged that she believed it was not my intention to come across this way and that I may not have been aware of it. Rather than justifying or explaining myself, I actively listened to her concerns, apologized, and we agreed on a plan to be more mindful of our communication in the future. As part of this plan, Kajsa suggested a codeword, "rockstar," to help me recognize, lovingly, when I was at it again.
In my personal life, my partner and I try to have regular ‘Relationship Retrospectives’, inspired by this blog by Alanna Irving. Creating an intentional space to talk about ‘the relationship’ makes it so much easier to talk about sensitive issues because it’s in the context of having a better relationship and crucially not about ‘being right.’
2. Transform your Groups: Building Trust and Openness
“Psychological safety is not the same as psychological comfort.” If we want to have effective teams, we need to find ways to be radically honest with each other and talk about what’s ‘under the surface’ – in other words, feelings, ways of being, mindsets, relationship dynamics, working climate, and so on.
The first step is to stop being polite, stop pretending, and stop protecting! We are adults, capable human beings who can talk about things that are difficult to talk about.
In Tuff, we use the metaphor of putting our ‘moose heads on the table’. It’s a way of referring to the usually taboo issues that affect the level of trust and collaboration in the team. We start every meeting with the question: “Any moose heads?” Someone might bring one up (perhaps about something that was done or said in the previous meeting) and the group will listen to them and ask them what they need – an explanation? An apology? Perhaps just to feel heard and acknowledged. It’s never ‘comfortable’, but every time we do this, it’s a joint commitment to having a climate of openness and trust.
Conclusion: Embracing Conflict for True Collaboration
If we want our groups to get out of the ‘Prison of Pretence’ and reach the highest level of true collaboration, one key area to develop is our ability to engage with conflicts. We can do that by:
- Seeing conflicts as generative (if we don’t put a lid on them, and if we learn how to navigate them)
- Practising relationship conversations (maintaining healthy one-to-one relationships is part of having a healthy group)
- Transforming our groups (by daring to be much more honest and open about what’s really going on under the surface in order to free up energy for being an effective team)