I have always been wowed by people’s irrational desire to avoid healthy conflicts at work. It seemed that their primary goal is not to achieve results but to treat each other politely. Everyone was super polite and courteous. We were not making pots and pans; we were celebrating the Day of Politeness. Every working day, yeah.
What happens when that overly polite team fails a project?
They will try to find the culprit. And whom will they scapegoat? Right, it will be the less polite guy. The one who made the fur fly. The main scandalmonger of all meetings. He was assigned the ‘guilty’ attribute, not because he actually failed the project. He or she is guilty because he or she dared to be more visible than others. The alpha culprit, LOL :)
Of course, I can imagine a team all members of which are masters of psychological adaptation, flexible perception, stalkers, and ego hackers able to “find the best way out of any situation.” However, throughout decades of my conscious work experience, I have never met such a team.
No matter how cool your teammates are, you will always find someone to turn rigidly stupid, someone starting to play an infantile, someone who can’t overcome fear, someone withdrew into themselves, someone depressed, and someone unconsciously bullheaded. And these are common problems of ordinary people. No matter how professional your team is, its members will turn into imbeciles with equal likelihood, but in different time intervals. By the way, I am not an exception to that.
When people fall into these mental states, they do harm to what the entire team does, and their behavior affects the process. We may either call them names, demonstrate empathy, or ignore their bad condition, but the outcome of it will be obvious — the project will suffer. Day by day, it gets worse, deadlines get burnt, team members get lost, vision and goals evaporate. There’s just one reason behind it all; some human being has got issues.
Just imagine that a temporarily insane leader is in charge. Even the cleaning robot has already categorized their speech as ‘bullshit.’ The project is endangered. And no one at this meeting could just open their mouth and speak out: “Hey, Jim, have you just came down from Mars?” (The opposite situation is quite common in the Israeli army). Moreover, the team continues to work on this project, seeing and knowing that no good is going to happen. Nobody quits while they are being paid. No one wants to start a revolution to stop this outrage. All people politely say hello to each other, exchange pleasantries, and try not to think about the deadline.
Why does efficient work on a project pre-assume healthy conflicts?
We are not mythic unicorns; we are flesh and blood. If Dr.Stupid takes the stage to hypnotize the team, and no one hits their teammates with sticks to wake them up, letting the project die, then why should we even do it? You should either leave or fight. Both approaches are equally good in terms of outcome. You can either get out of the dead team and benefit from joining a new one that is alive, or you can start fighting for common sense to get things done and wake up your colleagues from sleep.
When I think of a system with zero need for conflict, I can imagine a prison, a camp, or a hospital. This might be a place with zero need for progress, too. Any evolution is contraindicated because such systems exist to monitor people’s behaviors, letting them just be. So they have to exist with zero change. Conflicts in such systems lead them out of their usual indicators so that every revolt will be suppressed. If your business functions under the same principles, if you don’t let your employees get into healthy conflicts for the sake of the project, you deprive your project of growth and development, too.
And if you have a startup (of course you do!), its success often depends on the number of productive conflicts at meetings.
“Conflict” means I care about it.
“Conflict” means I trust in the change.
Patrick Lencioni very well covers these topics in his famous business novel entitled “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team”, and Dan Senor, Saul Singer in their “The Startup Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle” work. I strongly recommend both of them.