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Eleanor Roosevelt admitted that at first she found few issues compelling enough to drive her into confrontations or unpleasantness, but as her leadership passion grew Eleanor accepted conflict as inevitable "so we can prove our strength and demand respect for our wishes."

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All great relationships, the ones that last over time, require productive conflict in order to grow.  This is true in marriage, parenthood, friendship, and certainly business.

Unfortunately, conflict is considered taboo in many situations, especially at work.  And the higher you go up the management chain, the more you find people spending inordinate amounts of time and energy trying to avoid the kind of passionate debates that are essential to any great team.

It is important to distinguish productive ideological conflict from destructive fighting and interpersonal politics.  Ideological conflict is limited to concepts and ideas, and avoids personality-focused, mean-spirited attacks.  However, it can have many of the same external qualities of interpersonal conflict -- passion, emotion, and frustration -- so much so that an outside observer might easily mistake it for unproductive discord.

But teams that engage in productive conflict know that the only purpose is to produce the best possible solution in the shortest period of time.  They discuss and resolve issues more quickly and completely than others, and they emerge from heated debates with no residual feelings or collateral damage, but with an eagerness and readiness to take on the next important issue.

Ironically, teams that avoid ideological conflict often do so in order to avoid hurting team members' feelings, and then end up encouraging dangerous tension.  When team members do not openly debate and disagree about important ideas, they often turn to back-channel personal attacks, which are far nastier and more harmful than any heated argument over issues.

It is also ironic that so many people avoid conflict in the name of efficiency, because healthy conflict is actually a time saver.  Contrary to the notion that teams waste time and energy arguing, those that avoid conflict actually doom themselves to revisiting issues again and again without resolution.  They often ask team members to take their issues "off-line," which seems to be a euphemism for avoiding dealing with an important topic, only to have it raised again at the next meeting.

How does a team go about developing the ability and willingness to engage in healthy conflict?  The first step is acknowledging that conflict is productive, and that many teams have a tendency to avoid it.  As long as some team members believe that conflict is unnecessary, there is little chance that it will occur.

Teams that fear conflict...

  • Have boring meetings

  • Create environments where back-channel politics and personal attacks thrive

  • Ignore controversial topics that are critical to team success

  • Fail to tap into all the opinions and perspectives of team members

  • Waste time and energy with posturing and interpersonal risk management

Teams that engage in conflict...

  • Have lively, interesting meetings

  • Extract and exploit the ideas of all team members

  • Solve real problems quickly

  • Minimize politics

  • Put critical topics on the table for discussion

-Excerpted fromThe Five Dysfunctions of a Team,
by Patrick Lencioni

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