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MANAGEMENT: Overcoming the Fear of Conflict to Increase Team Effectiveness
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It is a fact that commercial airplanes have fewer accidents when the less experienced pilot (i.e. first officer or co-pilot) is flying rather than the captain (i.e. senior pilot). This counter-intuitive statistic does not make sense until you understand a critical relationship dynamic.
 
The common practice in commercial aviation is for the senior pilot and co-pilot to equally share the time flying the plane. Yet, studies show that crashes occur more frequently when the more experienced pilot is the one flying the plane (Malcom Gladwell, Outliers: The Story of Success, 2008.) By analysing cockpit voice recordings of the last few minutes before a crash, researchers have revealed that accidents are most often the direct result of the co-pilot’s reluctance to speak up to alert the captain to a problem. Thus, the plane is safer when the less experienced pilot is flying because the captain is less afraid to speak up to alert his or her partner of a potential problem.
 
Passionate, honest conversations are critical to innovation and the best solutions
We face similar challenges in our workplaces. In many work environments, team members are often hesitant to speak-up in order to provide valuable information, to question decisions or to disagree with colleagues. In an effort to preserve an artificial sense of harmony or avoid upsetting the boss, employees avoid tough topics, filter comments and stay away from engaging in the kind of conversations that are critical to success. 
 
But, for teams to be effective, they must be able to engage in passionate, honest conversations. While this may be uncomfortable, it is essential to being able to discover innovative solutions and to find the best ways forward. Team members must learn to trust each other enough to be vulnerable in sharing their ideas, their opinions and their disagreements. 
 
I was once working with a team in which people were afraid to disagree with the boss. When people had tried in the past, they felt he was dismissive or defensive. Over time, the team learned to censor their ideas and limit honest feedback. Unfortunately, when he was in the process of hiring a desperately needed office assistant, no one shared with him their concerns about the only applicant. It was obvious the boss was tired of looking and really wanted this applicant to fill the gap. However, within days of her employment she had engaged in unethical behaviour and struggled to do her work efficiently. Within weeks, she claimed she was injured on the job (when no one was around) so needed several weeks off. During that time, she also threatened to sue the company as well. While there was little merit to her claim, it still cost the small company thousands of yuan in legal fees and a settlement agreement. All that could have been avoided if team members had been better able to share their initial concerns. 
 
Employees need to feel heard to commit and stay engaged
Employee 'buy-in' is directly linked to involvement in communication. Most employees don’t need to get their preference every time, but they will rarely commit themselves to an idea unless they first feel heard. People don’t need to have their way, they just need to have it honestly considered. Without feeling heard, people may acquiesce to a decision, but later resist or not genuinely support it.
My boss recently emailed me regarding input on a decision he needed to make. While he didn’t make the decision I recommended, he did intentionally thank me for responding and acknowledged that he heard my concerns. He provided a bit more information about the decision and explained why he decided the way he did. While my comments didn’t ultimately direct the decision, my having an opportunity to comment did change my feelings toward the decision he made. 
 
When employees feel like they have a voice, they stay engaged. They care. They contribute. And, these positive qualities are essential to building a successful workplace culture.
 
Productive conflict focuses around ideas not egos
While honest communication is essential, it needs to stay focused on ideas and concepts, and avoid destructive political manoeuvring and personal attacks. To an outside observer it may look similar - passion, emotion and frustration - but successful teams know that the only purpose in the tension is to generate the best possible ideas or solutions. Effective teams discuss issues more quickly and completely, and after robust debates there is no relational collateral damage. 
 
Ironically, teams that try to avoid uncomfortable conversations often do so in order to keep them from hurting team members' feelings. But the avoided concerns often fester and lead to behind-the-back personal attacks, sarcasm or gossip, which are more harmful than any heated argument over issues.
 
Amidst the challenging conversations, teams need to keep perspective that they are indeed a team. Individuals need to avoid personal attachment to their opinions and to stay away from trying to 'win an argument'. The goal is bigger than any one person’s agenda and usually the best solutions emerge from a variety of different perspectives and insights.
 
altCultural differences but same value
Of course, we all know that communication norms vary significantly from culture to culture.  Some cultures are indirect in their communication style being quieter and more reserved, while others are more direct and some are even naturally inclined to shout and engage passionately.  However, for all cultures, the key question is: Are team members holding back? (Patrick Lencioni in Five Dysfunctions of Team). If people feel that they are unable to be honest and need to choose their battles, the team will suffer. People need to be safe enough with each other to disagree and to share their ideas without fear of retaliation.  When there is no disagreement, it’s probably a sign that team members are not putting all the ideas on the table.
 
Mastering conflict to improve communication effectiveness and performance
So, how do we develop the ability and willingness to engage in more productive, honest conversations? Firstly, we need to acknowledge that authentic communication is critical to our effectiveness, and that most teams have significant room to grow in this area. As long as team members think conflict is unnecessary, it is unlikely that it will happen. 
 
Additionally, successful team cultures normalise the discomfort associated with conflict. As a team or organisation, we need to regularly re-enforce that, “We believe in growth and learning. Since those are sometime uncomfortable, expect to feel that way sometimes. That is OK. You’re not alone. We’re all learning and growing together.”
 
Another simple, but important, way to re-enforce this value is to recognise when the people engaged in conflict are becoming uncomfortable with the level of discord, and then gently interrupt to remind them that what they are doing is necessary. As simple and paternal as it may sound, it may be an effective way for draining tension from the interaction and giving those involved encouragement to continue. After the discussion, it can be helpful to affirm the process and results. This builds a conflict-resilient culture, as usually the things that get positive attention and affirmation are more likely to be replicated.
 
At times, the leader and team members will need to courageously point out sensitive issues and invite team members to work them through. This requires a degree of objectivity during meetings and a commitment to staying with the conflict until it is resolved.
 
The boss must lead the way
The supervisor or manager is critical for creating the environment for these kinds of robust conversations. One of the important things a manager can do is to regularly invite feedback and then genuinely listen. After you present an idea, ask 'What’s missing?' or 'What else do I need to know?' Also, besides saying, 'My door is always open,' remember how you behave is the strongest message those around you will hear. If you are distracted, or immediately explain why their concern isn’t a problem, they will probably not take the risk of coming to you again. Colleagues will take their cues from what they observe or hear about how you respond to others. When someone does provide input or questions an issue, try asking a follow-up question like 'What difference do you think that would make?' to show you seek to understand and value their input. 
 
Successful teams make bold commitments
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations now require new pilots to ask questions and suggest solutions to their superiors. In fact, co-pilots are even required to take over the plane if the captain does not attend to repeated, specific requests to address an identified problem. By citing this I am not advocating insurrection on your team, but it does provide food for thought…
 
Successful teams will make similarly bold commitments. Encourage and train your people to speak up, and require them to take enough responsibility for the results that they are willing to step out of their comfort zone for the sake of the greater good. Avoiding healthy conflict only leads to mediocrity.
 
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By Kim Zovak

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