Actually, aggressive agreement is already doing it for you.

Humans are hardwired to avoid conflict. Especially in the workplace, hostility is a threat that we avoid like the proverbial plague.

But conflict can help. Questioning, disagreement, and argument can penetrate layers of opacity and get at the heart of matters. What’s more, conflict means people care. You have to believe in something to argue for it. And isn’t that what employers want most, employees who really care about the work?

If you stand up for what you care about, it means you’ve got some skin in the game. You’re invested. You’re passionate about the work and willing to suffer some discomfort to make it better. Agreeing with whatever decision gets made (whether you agree or not), is not the stuff of quality, of cutting edge, of genius.

It’s pure status quo.

Confession: I agree a lot. My heart’s in the right place, I want to be supportive and enthusiastic for my teammates. But knee-jerk agreement isn’t always helpful, and sometimes it’s just plain lazy. My desire to be encouraging shouldn’t absolve me from the critical thinking a teammate might need. Even if my response to a teammate’s idea is unmitigated go-go-go, it’s still better if I include why it’s a good idea, and how to assist the execution of said good idea.

What I’m suggesting is healthy conflict – or pushback or disagreement – is under appreciated in the workplace, and we’re missing chances to do our best work because we’re not challenging each other enough.

Now, I’m not implying you seek out conflict for conflict’s sake, thinking good and healthy results naturally follow anything. (How many of you want “conflict guy” on your team? Right. Exactly zero.) I’m saying how you engage with your team is directly tied to your team’s success. Just like active listening practices require you to concentrate on what your teammates say (or share), pushing back on ideas – aka healthy conflict – means digesting information, putting it in context, and weighing in from a thoughtful perspective.

Because if everybody always agrees, how can you make any real progress?

A teammate shared an article with our team that inspired this post. As a team exercise, we each read the piece and came to our weekly meeting prepared to discuss. It struck a chord (ironically, a harmonious one) because everyone had the same reaction: agreement. That is, we agreed we should disagree.

Everyone viewed “aggressive agreement” (my term) as a trap, and considered thoughtful, contrary opinions and feedback essential to team progress. Equally, we agreed that in the event of very strong disagreement, it was of the utmost importance to direct these opinions and viewpoints at the work and not the person.

A teammate invoked a former teacher’s phrase: “Don’t make it personal, don’t take it personal.”

However, this is often easier said than done. It’s natural to feel protective of your work and ideas. (Remember the part about caring above?) When offering feedback or disagreeing with a teammate, be as thoughtful and clear as possible. Don’t just say you don’t like something, say why you don’t like it. Give reasons, offer supporting evidence, and provide suggestions for how to improve the work. This is how half-baked ideas become love-muffin stratagems. As the saying goes.

Que interesante: The devil’s advocate
Turns out, most people misunderstand the meaning of the devil’s advocate. It doesn’t give someone a license to say something unpopular or distasteful. “The true role of the devil’s advocate… is to question the veracity of evidence and to propose alternate explanations for what has happened. By defining a clear devil’s advocate role, you legitimize challenges to the quality and relevance of the evidence you’re using to make a decision. A true devil’s advocate does a great service.” (From the HBR article.)

Focus your interactions with your team, whatever the circumstance, on a desire to make the work better. By extension, this means focussing on making the organization better. Take care to be thoughtful with your comments, and be helpful. When your teammates learn to understand and appreciate your feedback, your point of view, and your intentions, they’ll trust you more.

Radical team trust and a commitment to clean up your messes

You must be thinking, some elements must be in place first for healthy conflict to take place on a team.

You’re right. In a word: trust. Trust is the one word that comes up more than any other (by a wide margin) when talking about teams. Over and over again: trust. I add radical to trust because I think this kind of trust is something that must be fiercely preserved and protected. After all, if the team container is not a safe one, if teammates don’t, ultimately, trust each other, then you will get your neck chopped for sticking it out. Ruffle some feathers and your goose is cooked – and other bird metaphors.

Radical trust means:

  • Stick together
  • Believe in each other
  • Acknowledge experience, expertise, and individual skill sets
  • Make room for different personalities
  • Look for ways to help
  • Support and respect

Radical trust also means something else. It requires a commitment, when appropriate, to address the awkward stuff that often accompanies conflicts. Talking about what happened can be an amazing experience, though timing is very important. When everyone’s calm (talk too quickly and risk squabbling) and tempers have simmered down, take a moment to reflect. Maybe, upon reflection, the best course of action is to simply move on. No further action necessary. Or maybe, upon reflection, you decide to talk to your teammate and clear the air.

Personally, this is my go-to strategy. I learn so much from talking about weird interactions. Almost always (95% of the time) I discover a level of understanding that really helps me. Someone will reveal a nuance of their thinking that I hadn’t considered, and that knowledge is like a ray of heavenly light, illuminating and heartening. “Oh,” I exclaim, enlightened. “That‘s what you meant!”

Even better, I always feel closer after a clear-the-air chat, and more invested in being someone’s friend or teammate – or both.

But, as I mentioned, that’s my go-to route. I’m comfortable with this approach; it works for me. But I’ve learned from experience it isn’t everyone’s first choice. In fact, some folks appreciate if you can acknowledge the conflict in a quieter way, a less direct one. Some people don’t feel as comfortable with the direct, but paradoxically vulnerable, approach. And, through experience, I’ve learned there’s beauty in this method too. To just let things go, without needing to talk talk talk too much.

Still, when the timing’s right, and it feels like a check-in talk might help, clearing the air after a difficult interaction can be a beautiful thing.

6 tips for clearing the air after a conflict

  1. Decide if the interaction warrants a clean up.
  2. Ask a teammate’s advice. Do they think it’s worth mentioning? Have they had a similar experience? Can they offer suggestions about how best to handle?
  3. Make sure the time is right. If you decide to talk, use discretion, respect boundaries, don’t risk embarrassment by being in earshot of coworkers, and don’t approach while someone’s clearly busy or distracted.
  4. Start the conversation by clearly stating what you want to talk about, and asking if it’s okay to talk. “Hey, I sensed some tension between us yesterday during the meeting. Is it okay if we talk about it?”
  5. Lead with the positive. When addressing the misunderstanding, use the technique of expressing how the interaction made you feel. For example, “I really value your opinion on these topics. You’ve got a great eye. But when you said that the language I used was too simple, I felt a little embarrassed and it seemed like you didn’t understand my point. Did you mean I wasn’t familiar enough with the material?”
  6. Keep it focussed on the issue, and avoid personality traits or assumptions.

Sparring: the agile way

There’s a play called Sparring in the Atlassian Team Playbook. It’s a structured way to bounce ideas off your teammates and get feedback. It’s a practice that’s baked right into the agile philosophy… cake, if you will.

For example, you’re at a crossroads. Your project or article is stalling out and you need something to give it what it’s missing. But what? You’ve run out of ideas.

Bring it to a sparring session.

Think through a few options of where the project might go, present them, and then let your team loose. Next, use the sparring session to decide next steps as a team. A fruitful sparring session can be just what the doctor ordered. (Because usually the pharmacist can’t read the prescription? We’re buying black market? What does that phrase mean, anyway?)

Sparring is an invitation for folks to shoot arrows at a piece of work – to “battle test” it, as they say. Remember: don’t make it personal, don’t take it personal.

Also, just because someone invited you to spar with them doesn’t mean you have to make up reasons to criticize a piece of work. Maybe you like it? If you can’t see any holes to poke, then don’t. But, like all great feedback, if you see angles that your teammate hasn’t considered, if you see places where your teammate might fail — and, ipso facto, you fail — then you’re duty-bound to let them know.

Recommended reading: Spar from afar
Check out Dan Stevens’s recent article on sparring, which adds another wrinkle: how to spar with a mostly distributed team. He offers tips on sparring in general, and how to do it well while working remotely. He and his team have learned some great lessons.

Team collaboration, the recipe: 2 parts agreement, 1 generous sprinkle of disagreement

Great teamwork means the whole enchilada. Cohesiveness and camaraderie, to be served right, require their dashes of struggle and wrangling to realize their full potential. At the very least, don’t hide from disagreement. Disagreement can lead to more creativity and to a better understanding of your teammates’ ideas.

If you want to produce great things, you’ve got to leave room for a little conflict. It isn’t the only way to get to the heart of matters, or the only way to make real progress. But, you need to know your teammates are giving you their honest opinions, and willing to do so even if they disagree. Guard against getting stuck in positive feedback loops that take you, your creations, and your team… nowhere.

Especially nowhere new.

The idea here isn’t to create conflict for conflict’s sake, but to encourage you to engage. If you believe something’s wonky, or headed down the wrong path, don’t just sit there. Jump in and speak up, even at the risk of ruffling some feathers. (Back to bird metaphors.) Smoothing out the plume(s) later can be a rewarding experience, too.

But make no mistake: conflict’s hard. It’s hard in any context, let alone a business one, where we’re taught to be almost aggressively polite and accommodating. The trouble is, holding to that standard too strictly causes communication to run a beeline to bullshit land in 9.2 seconds flat. If everybody’s always agreeing and not saying what’s really on their minds, how can anyone know the truth? When it comes to the quality of your work, you need people to tell you the truth.

Healthy conflict brings out the edges in your team. When you’re advocating for something, and you really have a point of view, the convictions of your beliefs are laid bare. You’re saying what you mean. You are telling the truth.

And as the saying goes, the truth will set you free.


Also published on Medium.

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