Why These Teams Don’t Shy Away From Healthy Conflict

Constructive, honest dialogue is foundational for these teams.

Written by Stephen Ostrowski
Published on Jun. 17, 2021
Why These Teams Don’t Shy Away From Healthy Conflict
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Recounting a recent meeting with her colleagues addressing a “multifaceted problem,” Invitae Talent Operations Leader Sylvia Arifin observed that the gathering between colleagues at the biotech company “could have ended in a stalemate.” The task: getting operations data. Up for debate: what metrics to prioritize, how to procure them and the division of responsibilities.

But thanks to honest, constructive dialogue guided by shared interest in achieving a collective aim, the opposite transpired.

“It was a win-win rather than a zero-sum game, and we felt more connected to one another for solving the problem together,” she said.

Arifin’s anecdote calls to mind the importance of healthy conflict in the workplace, a notion which, on the surface, might seem to run counter to idyllic notions of a harmonious office. Yet part of the strength of a workforce exists in the range of thoughts and experiences held by individuals. That’s why disagreements where people are empowered to voice reservations and viewpoints are so vital.

 

image of two people walking in an office
CONGA

 

“If everyone on the team always agrees with their leader, it’s practically an echo chamber. It completely defeats the purpose of having a team,” Arifin said.

Kerry Hudson, a sales leader at operations-focused software company Conga, said that she is no stranger to conflict between sales and marketing teams. For example, a need to align on important numbers between the two departments yielded, similar to Arifin’s experience, positive gain: “Getting to a place where we now share ownership has created cohesion across the teams,” Hudson said.

Below, Hudson and Arifin stressed the importance of honest communication, constructive feedback and a focus on the big picture as elemental to teams’ ability to carry out healthy conflict.

 

Sylvia Arifin
Talent Operations Leader • Invitae

 

First, what does healthy conflict look like on your team? Share an example of a time when you've been part of a healthy debate.

Healthy conflict happens when people feel safe to offer their ideas, even if they are contrary to the prevailing one. Allowing different perspectives helps a team stress-test ideas, unlock creative problem solving and generate output that is greater than the sum of its parts.

I was once in a cross-functional meeting with a few leaders from other teams deciding on the best way to get some operations data. It was a multifaceted problem. We debated about which metrics were more important, how to capture them and who should be responsible for the work. Each of my colleagues presented valid points. The meeting could have ended in a stalemate; however, we respected one another and trusted that we all had the same goal of putting our customers first. Because we were able to challenge one another constructively, we came up with a well-rounded plan that took many factors into account. It was a win-win rather than a zero-sum game, and we felt more connected to one another for solving the problem together.

How has your team, company culture or product benefited from healthy conflict?

One of our company values is radically honest communication. That doesn’t mean being reckless or blunt with your opinion; rather, it’s about implicitly trusting teammates to be able to handle honesty and being vulnerable with them while prioritizing our care and respect for our teammates over our own discomfort. It means expecting our colleagues to be direct when delivering performance feedback, rather than sugarcoating or avoiding giving it. It means disagreeing during a meeting, rather than having sidebar conversations afterwards or, worse, silently sitting out a project when others assumed there was commitment.

When we communicate in a clear and direct way while owning what we say, we get to the heart of the matter so much more quickly. We have a sense of urgency in our mission, so this is important to us. Not only does practicing healthy conflict allow us to be high-performing as a team, it also makes it natural for us to be radically honest and transparent with the people we serve as clients.

 

Healthy conflict happens when people feel safe to offer their ideas, even if it is contrary to the prevailing one.”

 

What have you done to create a culture where healthy conflict can occur? And perhaps more importantly, what have you done to ensure debates remain respectful and constructive?

We don’t use hierarchical titles like senior director, associate director and so forth. One of the first things we tell job candidates is that once they walk in the door, the level in their title becomes irrelevant. We do this intentionally because we want to encourage all levels of teammates to engage in problem-solving, which sometimes means disagreeing with the most senior person in the room. That is just one of the many ways we support a culture where healthy conflict is the norm.

To keep debates constructive, we frequently bring up two phrases: “assume good intent” and “remember our why.” When we’re feeling triggered in a disagreement, if you first assume the person isn’t making a negative judgment about you and that they share the same goal, how can you become more curious about their point? Also, when we pause and remind ourselves of the why in the discussion, we can redirect our focus and energy to the longer term collective goal over shortsighted, superficial score-keeping. 

 

 

 

Kerry Hudson
Vice President of North America Commercial Sales • Conga

 

First, what does healthy conflict look like on your team? Share an example of a time when you've been part of a healthy debate.

Healthy conflict looks like honest conversation where everyone is heard and there is no back-channeling. It means getting aligned on the problem statement, listening to both or multiple sides, coming up with ideas for how to solve an issue, agreeing to that solution and moving on.

Conflict between sales and marketing isn’t unique; there’s often tension around topics like demand generation and pipeline ownership. This year our teams debated numbers and both teams’ leaders had to prioritize understanding where the others were coming from. We had to be clear on, and empathize with, each others’ challenges and then agree to strategic and tactical execution plans; only then could we commit to working together to make our number. Getting to a place where we now share ownership has created cohesion across the teams.

How has your team, company culture or product benefited from healthy conflict?

Our teams continue to benefit by learning not to fear conflict and how to embrace it in a healthy and productive way. Better communication makes us more effective and knowing that we’re working toward common goals helps to build a broader company culture of trust.

When you consistently show that healthy conflict is a requirement for fostering a healthy organization, and therefore is expected, people feel more comfortable speaking up and offering a point of view. They’re also more likely to challenge assumptions and thought processes. This is critical to making the best decisions for our business. In addition to the benefit that healthy conflict has for interpersonal relationships, it enables us to move faster overall because we're not rehashing decisions.

 

Healthy conflict looks like honest conversation where everyone is heard and there is no back-channeling.”

 

What have you done to create a culture where healthy conflict can occur? And perhaps more importantly, what have you done to ensure debates remain respectful and constructive?

We’re doing quite a bit to encourage employees to approach conflict in healthy ways across Conga. This year, we introduced hands-on team and cross-functional workshops based on the principles discussed in “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team” by Patrick Lencioni.

Knowing that trust is the foundation, we’re helping colleagues get to know one another better and build relationships as individuals. This includes having them complete and share their Myers-Briggs Type Indicator personality inventories, as well as discussing aspects of their personal histories. Understanding how someone else thinks and works through problems, what they enjoy and how to better relate to them is incredibly helpful when it comes to managing conflict.

The goal is to approach conversations knowing that, even in the best of teams, conflict will sometimes be uncomfortable. But when you have trust, you know it’s about the issue, not the person.

 

Responses have been edited for length and clarity. Thumbnail photo via Shutterstock. All other images via listed companies.

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