Why teams need confrontation

Consider the analogy of an iceberg. Above water is everything that is said, seen and done within the team. From a distance it looks clean and beautiful. Get a little closer, look beneath the surface and you’ll see where the real problems can lie. You’ll see the things that have the potential to sink your ship and damage your team in the process. 

Beneath the surface lie things like hidden agendas, history and baggage, politics and power plays along with different feelings, emotions, relationships and stress levels. 

Suppressing and containing these things can only be done for so long, after which they tend to reach the surface in spectacularly explosive ways. The problem is not so much that they have come to light in this manner; it is the fact that they came to the surface so violently and out of the blue. The result of these heated exchanges is often teams tackling the symptoms of the issue instead of the root cause.

Spot the signals

Much like a ship’s radar is able to detect icebergs, a skilled leader can spot the signals of these ‘below the line’ issues. It’s the whispered conversations, the un-comfortable look on team members faces when you pass them at the water cooler and the rolled eyeballs or looks exchanged between two colleagues during a meeting. These are the discreet, tell tale signs that an effective leader pays attention to.

Encouraging confrontation

So how do you skillfully encourage positive confrontation within your team?

Encourage disagreements

Encourage your team members to actively look for areas of disagreement and raise them at meetings. Facilitate meetings where disagreements are identified  and then force the team to work through the challenges.

Make it ok

When conflict begins, make a point of interrupting and reassuring your team that it is a positive thing. It is only by challenging ideas and confronting problems that teams are able to truly develop and grow.

Attack the problem, not the person

When challenging your staff pay close and careful attention to the language that you use. Focus on the solution rather that focusing on the team member whose idea it was or who is advocating a particular course of action. Try saying things like ‘my concerns with that course of action is….’ instead of saying ‘your idea won’t work because…’

Focus on everybody needs, not just solutions

Encourage team members to share their personal concerns, needs and desires relating to a particular project or problem.  All too often team members share only their desired solution, which is based upon their own needs.  Solutions, by definition, are therefore just an individual’s way of meeting their interests or needs.
By sharing their personal needs or concerns, teams are able to develop solutions that take everybody’s interests into account and create an environment of healthy confrontation.

Ben Morton is an international team development consultant and coach whose clients range from small and solo business owners to FTSE 100 companies and international brands.

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