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How To Generate Productive Conflict at Work

January 19, 2011

My colleagues and I are trying to generate more conflict in our meetings at work.

Some of us executives have been reading “Death by Meeting,” by Patrick Lencioni. He promotes, among other things, healthy drama as the starring attraction of your meetings.

Conflict is good, he says, because it forces people to get beyond surface-level platitudes and head nodding – which of course leads to head-bobbing and drooping eyelids. Instead, conflict can get team members engaged by digging deep into the heart of an issue and voicing their passionate opinions.  

And he’s right. Bringing up differing points of view can be extremely valuable to the overall outcome of a meeting. If you disagree, or think the idea being presented is stupid, why not say something?

Conflict simply leads to better decisions.

According to a survey by OfficeTeam, managers think that 28% of their meetings are a complete waste of time. But what do you expect when folks are assembling in limp heaps around conference tables, only to listen passively to what’s being presented without voicing their true opinions? It’s usually after the meeting’s over when the real opinions start coming out, with end runs and gossipy closed-door office conversations.

There is a healthy way to go about generating productive conflict.

Robin Democoni, Sr Vice President and Brand Manager for Elle Group, was featured in the Corner Office segment of the New York Times Sunday business section last week, and has her own take on how to generate healthy dialogue.

“You can say anything to anyone, as long as you say it the right way,” she says.

The ‘right way,’ of course being the operative words here. She calls it MRI, or “most respectful interpretation.”

Robin encourages people to challenge her, to be passionate about their ideas, but to couch their alternate opinions in a respectful way.  She gives an example:

“Maybe you need to preface it with: ‘I’m just curious, and I want to understand what you’re saying better. Right now, my point of view is quite different. So can you help me understand why you don’t want to do this, or why you wanted to do this?’”

Now, that doesn’t sound like negative, bullying destructive talk, does it? She continues by saying,

“If you get people talking and challenging each other, you’re going to have the ability to arrive at the right decision so much quicker and so much easier.”

Robin, I couldn’t agree with you more.  Honest.

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20 Comments leave one →
  1. January 19, 2011 9:44 am

    I work for an organization in big trouble. And instead of encouraging conflict like so many times in the past, they are consolidating power and silencing dissent.

    They think this will guarantee survival. As you point out, it’s precisely the wrong approach

    • January 20, 2011 6:26 am

      Oooh. Silencing dissent… sounds like a coup might be brewing some time soon. Putting the lid on only heightens the pressure. Good luck there, David.

  2. January 19, 2011 10:02 am

    I have sat in meetings before, the falling-asleep kind where the management was telling us assistants how things were supposed to happen. We never talked because there was never any evidence that the management would listen to us if we did, let alone consider our point of view from being the ones in the day-to-day interaction with clients.

    I like this idea very much, treating people as equals, inviting conflict to encouraged better decisions. I wonder if our management had offered to engage us in that way, if we wouldn’t have felt that the meetings were a complete waste of our time.

    • January 20, 2011 6:36 am

      You bring up a good point, that if management squashes health dialogue, then it won’t happen. The point Robin made in the interview was that she, as a leader, expected and encouraged that kind of discussion among her team. She builds it into the culture, and has found a way to keep it positive. She recognizes the need for others to challenge her position. Maybe that is a rare thing among leaders? It shouldn’t be.

  3. January 19, 2011 10:37 am

    BJM,

    Often, the most profound ideas are discovered in the agitation that accompanies heated conflict. It can sometimes be an uttered phrase that stems from pure annoyance.

    If everyone plays too nice and speaks softly all the time, true emotion is not brought to the table and a whole bunch of emotional ideas remain caged up inside.

    How else do you think hilarious advertising slogans get invented? Figuring out the verbiage for big-time marketing is simple; put a whole bunch of insanely creative crazies in a room together, close the door, and make them talk to each other.

    Now if you want to have me in a boardroom (and retain me for a long period of time) with a bunch of creative crazies, you’ll have to pay through the nose. Cause let’s face it babe, I’m an infinite source. And if that sounds too brash, a tad arrogant; boo-hoo. I like to think of it as self-assertive and realistic.

    What was that post your wrote a while back about sounding too arrogant? LOL.

    You’re a bad man BJM – And I mean that in the coolest way possible.

    Be good kids,

    Matthew

    • January 20, 2011 6:49 am

      Thanks Matt.
      I do believe it’s a difficult task to bring up conflict in a productive and positive way. I was in a meeting last week when 2 or 3 guys ganged up on another, and voices were raised, a fist was pounded hard on the table… I didn’t think it was handled as well as it could have been. I think they could have made their point in a way that allowed the other party to respond back with another opinion instead of making him feel like he’s getting beat up on. That’s the difference between negative and healthy conflict. So I would suggest that the “annoying” voice in the room should discipline themselves to present their comment in a respectful way, without tearing the other down and making them feel like an idiot.

      This is what I liked about Robin’s MRI approach.

      Do you agree? Or do you think it’s healthier to go at it with each other and let the passions run wild?

  4. January 19, 2011 1:07 pm

    There is no question that managed conflict is vital in a healthy organization. We should be aware, though, that not everyone handles conflict in the same way, and most do not handle it terribly well. I would strongly recommend accompanying this study with one on healthy conflict. I’ve just read a book looking at conflict in churches, called “Making Peace: A Guide to Overcoming Church Conflict” by Jim Van Yperen. Despite the appearance of the title, he argues that conflict is essential, BUT that in most social settings (and businesses would be the same) it is handled very badly, creates resentments and relational issues, and thus needs to be “overcome”. Van Yperen talks about a number of differernt standard responses to conflict (passive, aggressive, defensive, etc) and also an approach to conflict that works (Biblical and eminently applicable in all situations). You might have a hard time introducing this in business settings, but there are no doubt more acceptable business-oriented equivalents.

  5. January 19, 2011 10:30 pm

    i find this absolutely fascinating…

  6. January 19, 2011 11:13 pm

    Sounds like you’ve been sitting in on some of our Session meetings! This is why they only let me serve one term–I was always bringing up the other side. (The fact that I was probably the youngest in the group by about 25 years might have had something to do with that…I’m just saying).

    Great article, Bradley. I might try this out some time soon. 🙂

    • January 20, 2011 6:07 pm

      Laura, I am confident that you brought up issues with a positive and respectful tone. Am I right?

  7. January 20, 2011 1:49 pm

    i will volunteer to be your meeting coach.

    no kidding, really…a person like me, that has no clue what is being discussed, yet can clearly hear when someone is not being constructive in their interactions, could whack them over the head with a gift wrapping paper tube, and tell them to rephrase their last comment.

    i would also be willing to put them into time-out by giving them a lovely decorated one-of-a-kind hat for them to wear, and having them sit in the corner. with only four corners to the room, it would have to be serious business before being put into time-out.

    and of course, every fifteen minutes would be dance time. one minute of boogie break dancing to the music, no matter what everyone is talking about. even time-outers do dance time.

    wow, this would be my dream job!

    work interactions are totally interesting.
    especially if i’m not employed full-time at the business.

    maybe, my calling is actually reality show writer.

    reality show writer, business meeting coach…same thing, right?

  8. January 20, 2011 6:11 pm

    Love your ideas. We call these kinds of people “facilitators.” And yes, you could do an excellent job at it, I’m sure!

    This reminds me, when I was in college I used to organize “study parties” during exam week. I had strict rules of silence, but then we would stop every two hours a play loud music, get snacks, and do a 15 minute dance break. It was a riot. Then right back to studying.

    • January 20, 2011 10:51 pm

      no, i’m no expert. but, it just sounds like a facilitator at a business meeting could make a good comedy
      if someone with a good sense of humor wrote it.

      i can also see it as the subject of a monty python sketch.

    • January 20, 2011 11:06 pm

      i know that this is serious business for you, but, i can’t help but find some things need a little creative thinking, even a bit of silliness can bring about something worthwhile.

      i like the story about the study parties. sometimes we lose this wonderful side of us in all the seriousness, and an important aspect to healthy balance is lost.

  9. January 20, 2011 11:46 pm

    BJM,

    I like your follow-up questions. They help me see the problem. I see the problem.

    MRP

  10. January 21, 2011 10:35 pm

    I love the idea of inviting conflict or at the very least, good discussion. After all, it IS the foundation of our democracy. I have seen a couple of fun approaches where teams were required to give arguments and counter arguments and I loved it.

  11. January 23, 2011 10:56 am

    Hello Bradley,

    This is a good article and some healthy debate. I also find that conflict is handled badly more often than not, and it takes a really strong leader to guide a meeting through such conflict.

    Which brings me to the question: how would you handle negative conflict as a leader when the ganging up begins and fists meet the table hard and loud?

    Ophelia

    • January 23, 2011 6:38 pm

      I think the best approach is to remind the group that opinions are allowed to be expressed, even passionate ones. But the one on the receiving end needs encouragement to ensure that they don’t cower and withdraw in response, but are able to also speak their opinion back. There is an intervention that might be beneficial, to say, “Thanks Joe, for your input. It is obviously an important issue. Now, Greg, what do you think? Do you agree with this? Do you have another opinion?” etc. and draw it out. Othewise it gets shut down.

      You are right, it takes a strong leader to recognize it and handle it well.

  12. January 26, 2011 8:34 pm

    Loved that ironic ending. 🙂

    I am often disagreeing with people, mostly because I’m just thinking all the time… and so I am often trying to find ways to do that so it moves the conversation forward. I do like the idea of voicing curiosity and asking for help in understanding. That takes the edge off things, and even puts the inquirer in a position of “submission,” (help me understand implies I don’t have everything together). Kinda cool. 🙂

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