How to Fight Right: 3 Tips

When it comes to conflict at work getting to a Goldilocks moment - not too much, not too little - is hard. Here's how to get your team to debate productively.

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Teams walk a delicate balance with conflict.

Too much and you get rancor and paralysis. Too little and your team stumbles along implementing unchallenged and probably suboptimal ideas. So how do you get to that Goldilocks moment where there’s neither too much conflict nor to little?

Kellogg School management professor Leigh Thompson has some ideas. In a long discussion about her new book, Creative Conspiracy: The New Rules of Breakthrough Collaboration, on Kellogg insight recently, Thompson takes a long detour into the psychology of conflict and what leaders can do to ensure their teams fight in a healthy and productive way.

Focus on Problems, Not People

Thompson outlines the difference between benign conflict, which can actually sharpen your team’s thinking, and more malignant arguments, stressing that good fights are about ideas, not people.

“Benign conflict focuses on the substance of the problem, not the people espousing the argument,” she says. “The malignant type of conflict is where people attack the person making the argument.  They question their intentions, their integrity, their motivations.”

How can you steer a conversation towards the former and away from the latter? “Try this exercise: the next time someone attacks your idea, try to state what you think their argument is. Try stating their argument even more forcefully than they have stated it,” Thompson says, adding, “resist getting personal. Instead, offer to share how you arrived at your belief. Focusing just on arguments and data—and setting aside personal feelings—takes some practice, like playing piano or riding a bike.”

Don’t Settle for Instant Consensus

Sometimes everyone naturally agrees, but those situations are generally so obvious that you wouldn’t have called everyone together to talk about them in the first place. If you pooled the best minds of your business to discuss something and everyone is in instant agreement, you’re probably going about debating it wrong and missing a valuable opportunity to delve deeper into the issue.

“If you have a group in which everyone seems to be in agreement, that’s a signal that you’re going to have to do some work. You either need to appoint a devil’s advocate or invite an outsider in who’s going to disagree with you,” says Thompson.

Prodding your people to be less conflict adverse can lead to real benefits, according to Thompson who cites recent research that shows, “brainstorming groups that engage in open debate, challenging each other in benevolent ways, perform better than groups that don’t have any debate at all. Managers often tell groups not to criticize each other, but the data actually suggests that debate helps the creative process.”

To help stir up healthy conflict, she advises suggests discussion participants refrain from staking out a definite position too early in a conversation. Once people have taken a firm public stance they’re hesitant to change their minds and others are often hesitant to dissent, leading to what she terms “pluralistic ignorance.” Testing hypotheses and trading arguments about theories often works better than planting a flag and asking team members to try to topple you from opinion mountain.

Walk the Middle Way

Another key to productive debates is knowing how often to call for them and when to end them.

“You don’t want to always be debating. Even if you and I are having benign conflict, at some point we need to be doing other things,” she says. Your aim should be the conflict sweet spot: “Avoiding conflict isn’t good; debating each other all the time is not that good either. You want to have a moderate amount.”

How do you find that conflict “sweet spot” with your team? 
Jessica Stillman is a freelance writer based in London with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist. @EntryLevelRebel
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