The Importance Behind Healthy Conflict at Work

Providing space for transparent discussions leads to stronger collaboration and an inclusive culture.

Written by Tyler Holmes
Published on Jun. 15, 2021
The Importance Behind Healthy Conflict at Work
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Conflict in the workplace might sound like a recipe for disaster. But if managed correctly, it can actually lead to successful collaboration. Healthy conflict and respectful disagreements not only promote a culture of communication. They can also promote business growth.

By having the freedom to lay any disagreements out on the table, every member of a team is given the equal opportunity to feel heard and interact with a new perspective that may not have been previously considered. But in order to achieve the full benefits from embracing healthy conflict, leaders must also clearly establish a space to promote curiosity. One way to do this? An all-inclusive confidence vote to guarantee transparency. 

“The goal is to move toward conversation knowing that, even in the best of teams, conflict will sometimes be uncomfortable,” Kerry Hudson, vice president of North American commercial sales at Conga, said. “When you have trust, you know it’s about the issue, not the person.”

Built In Colorado sat down with with Hudson and Tamara Nation, director of product management at Scaled Agile, to gain insight into how their teams frequently address healthy conflict before disagreements have the chance to grow into resentment.

 

Tamara Nation
Director of Product Management • Scaled Agile, Inc.

Scaled Agile trains and certifies businesses in its Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) to help them improve their software development processes and business outcomes. Nation said that by conducting a confidence vote before major projects, every employee has a chance to voice their opinion to keep operations running smoothly.

 

What does healthy conflict look like on your team?

Scaled Agile uses an all-inclusive, all-company planning cadence to ensure that we are creating maximum alignment and transparency. It is quarterly for two to four days, and the goal is to set the objectives for the next quarter by collaboratively planning and committing to the work.

We have a process to make sure that we hear all voices. An essential part of the process is a confidence vote. The confidence vote asks each individual to give a 1-to-5 rating on how confident they feel in their team and the organization as a whole’s ability to meet the objectives. This allows us to surface any disagreements, misalignments or even conflict about the plan and discuss it.

Occasionally a person or a team has low confidence in the plan. We pause because we really honor the courageous voice to question our plans and assumptions. We address the concerns and modify the plan. It is always a nerve-racking question to ask as the facilitator and a company leader. I have butterflies in my stomach waiting for the results. But the only way out is through – through hard conversations that allow everyone to be heard and be a part of the team.

 

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

Living a process that allows us to hear differing, and even conflicting, opinions allows us to take quick action to understand and resolve the inevitable misalignment that occurs as teams are planning and executing work.

We have extraordinary predictability in our deliverables to our customers. We make and keep commitments every day, week and quarter. We do that while maintaining a highly transparent and collaborative company culture and environment. The team members and our customers are able to benefit from all of the perspectives across our company. We hear from everyone, from the newest member of the support team to our founders. Everyone is planning and committing inclusively.

We set clear expectations around how to respond with curiosity when we hear that someone has a concern.”

 

What have you done to create a culture where healthy conflict can occur?

We set clear expectations around how to respond with curiosity and not defensiveness when we hear that someone has a concern. The SAFe Framework has defined events around checking in as a team and an organization daily, every two weeks and every quarter so that our discussions remain respectful and constructive since we get a lot of practice. It is an ongoing conversation that lowers the stakes for any potential conflict because we are keeping short tabs, meaning not accumulating lots of conflicts before a discussion can – and does – happen.

 

Kerry Hudson
Vice President of North American Commercial Sales • Conga

Conga is a software tech company that helps businesses increase revenue generation, optimize commercial relationships and adapt digitally. Hudson said that by empathizing with each other’s challenges first and foremost, it becomes easier to listen to other points of view and understand that all members of a team are working toward a common goal.

 

What does healthy conflict look like on your team?

Healthy conflict looks like honest conversation, no back-channeling, where everyone is heard. 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, at the end of the day, both teams’ leaders had to prioritize understanding where the others were coming from.

We had to be clear on and empathize with each other’s challenges; 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 and/or product benefited from healthy conflict?

Our teams continue to benefit from learning not to fear conflict, and how to embrace it in a healthy and product 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 of fostering a healthy organization (and therefore 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.

When you consistently show that healthy conflict is a requirement of fostering a healthy organization, people feel more comfortable speaking up.”

 

What have you done to create a culture where healthy conflict can occur?

We’re doing quite a bit to encourage healthy conflict across Conga. This year, we introduced hands-on team and cross-functional workshops based on the principles in The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Pat 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® (MBTI) types, 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 move toward conversation 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.

I remind my team that it’s important to pick up the telephone and, as things open up post-COVID-19, invite someone for a glass of wine. Remember, the people side of business matters.

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