If you spend any time around carpenters, you will likely witness a hearty, often colorful debate about how to perform a repair on a building. Methods and materials are discussed, sometimes with language that you wouldn’t hear anywhere else (and that would likely make even the most worldly of people blush). Those debating will be certain that their method is correct because, right or wrong, they have completed the task hundreds of times. In these conflicts, often the best idea wins. Occasionally, an animated discussion devolves into name calling, someone walking off the job, or in the most extreme examples, a fistfight to solve the path forward.
If completed without the negative aspects mentioned above, conflict can be a healthy part of a productive work environment. Intense conversation where one employee challenges another (even challenges the GM, CEO, or owner) can result in a better idea being implemented for the good of the company. The key to making sure that these conversations are productive is to be aware of the type of conflict, whether it is relationship or task conflict.
Relationship conflict is what most people think of when they are in a disagreement; the thought that the other person must be terrible and life would be better having not had to interact with their counterpart. This type of conflict should not be tolerated in a small business. It should be discouraged on a regular basis and possibly disciplined.
Alternatively, task conflict is desired in a company. The debate of different opinions and perspectives can produce positive results for the current topic or for many topics in the future. This type of conflict should be sought out because it has a great potential to be constructive. When we genuinely seek the truth in these discussions and resist being personal or emotional, we have what potentially leads to building a better company around better ideas.
Organizational Psychologist Adam Grant found in his studies that conflict in a high-performing team is healthy. He reinforces this finding by offering the following from his book Think Again: “The absence of conflict is not harmony, it’s apathy.” The book continues and offers that most people enjoy being surrounded by people who think like they do and have similar views. The result is that we do not question our opinions. Instead, our beliefs become fact to both individuals and companies.
In practice, this means that leaders must create an environment that allows everyone to challenge directly without attacking each other personally. This will require time and attention from a company’s management staff. The following tips are meant to help you get started in creating positive task conflict.
Tip 1: Create a Language around Conflict
The words that we use make a difference, so time and care should be taken to make sure that all employees know how to properly interact with each other and challenge ideas. Developing a core group of words or phrases that indicates you are looking to challenge the way another person thinks is critical to initiating this type of discussion in the workplace. Consider staging task challenges in your meetings. You can accomplish this by taking an idea your organization considers as fact—something that you always do in a specific way—and encouraging debate.
For example, you could discuss vehicles, maintenance, and start-of-day routines to make sure they are road worthy. You may have a written policy (develop one if you do not) about what to check on a vehicle prior to leaving the shop and the best way to do so. Ask for the two people in your organization who do this best to talk about the company’s vehicle policy in a meeting. When you arrive at this point in the meeting, ask one of them to leave the room and instruct the remaining one to focus on one idea in the policy, assuming it is wrong, and develop an argument about how to prove that the policy is wrong. Once the group in the meeting agrees on the argument, invite the other employee back into the room and let them know that, as a group, you decided that you disagree with the vehicle policy. Have the first employee defend the group’s position as the second employee challenges it. Pay attention to the words and phrases that are used in the discussion to make sure that it stays playful and out of personal conflict.
Over time, as several of these mock discussions take place, develop a list of acceptable words and phrases that the team is then asked to begin using. This will help them to continue practicing task conflict, while avoiding personal conflict, when management is not present.
Tip 2: Allow Others to Draw Their Own Conclusions
As a leader, the real danger of encouraging conflict is that you could be wrong. Allowing those around you to discuss ideas in a challenging way will result in you not always having the best idea in the room. And this is ok.
As you encourage and participate in discussions, allow individuals to draw their own conclusions. Do this even if you reach a decision before they do. This can be practiced by asking questions about their key disagreement but be sure not to sacrifice time or efficiency. To avoid this you must set the stage for when and where it is appropriate to utilize the language you have previously developed.
For field technicians, the appropriate time and place may be while they are in the truck or at other specific places on the jobsite. You may also ask them to limit discussions to the office unless their idea is keeping someone out of danger. For managers, this may be during meeting times specific to certain topics.
In all instances, it should be clear that discussion and disagreement are being encouraged, with well-thought-out ideas, not just top-of-mind banter between colleagues. It is ok to continue doing things the way you have always done them. Or the disagreement may lead to the conclusion that a new idea is better than the old. And sometimes, someone else will need to break the tie by determining the path forward.
Tip 3: Create a Safe Learning Environment
Referencing back to Tip 1, the process described is a tool to create a safe learning environment. There are no risks to being wrong. In fact, in task conflict, one person will almost always be wrong. In the example above, everyone in the room knows that one person will fail in the argument and the other will succeed, because at the end of the discussion, there will only be one way to determine if vehicles are road worthy.
By using the process described, what is referred to as psychological safety in the workplace will be created. This is defined as the belief that you won’t be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes. And this is the cornerstone of creating healthy task conflict in the workplace. If this piece fails, reconsider how you approach conflict and start again to create a healthy, safe learning environment for everyone in the organization.
For managers or members of the management team, it is important to disagree with each other without being disagreeable. How you approach correcting others when they could be wrong is often more important than correcting the behavior. It is your responsibility as a manager (or a coworker, for that matter) to make sure the other person is willing to hear the message. Being responsible for the other person in this way will result in less missed opportunities for you as a leader.
In carpentry and business, the best ideas should always win. This means that something you may have been doing for years could be wrong. At first, task conflict in the workplace may feel odd or make you vulnerable as a leader. Embrace the challenge, encourage others to think for themselves, and be happy with the results of a workforce that thinks of better ways to solve problems.