Teams, Would You Please Start Arguing?

When I first saw Adam Grant’s New York Times article entitled “Kids, Would You Please Start Fighting?”, I assumed that reading it might help me in my parenting role but not my professional one.  But I was wrong.

The focus of the article is on the benefits of allowing siblings to hash out their conflicts.  It suggests that instead of insisting on artificial harmony, we should help children learn the skills of having a good argument without making it personal. And it encourages parents not to wait to have their own arguments until after the kids are in bed.  The idea is that kids need to see the adults in their lives disagree strongly and still kiss goodnight.  As it says, “If we rarely see a spat, we learn to shy away from the threat of conflict. Witnessing arguments — and participating in them — helps us grow a thicker skin. We develop the will to fight uphill battles and the skill to win those battles, and the resilience to lose a battle today without losing our resolve tomorrow.”

The need for resilience and the ability to effectively engage in conflict applies equally to teams in the workplace.  In our work with organizations, we often leverage a team development program called The Five Behaviors of a Cohesive Team which is based on a partnership between Patrick Lencioni and Wiley.  A core idea is that teams need to learn how to engage in healthy conflict – vigorous, and sometimes messy debate about ideas, options, and opportunities.   High performing teams have no fear of intensely debating ideas because they trust one another.  While the conflict may get uncomfortable, it doesn’t get personal.  Everyone knows the objective is to collectively find the best outcome, and they believe the article’s proposition that “It’s a sign of respect to care enough about someone’s opinion that you’re willing to challenge it.”

The article gives a great example of this from the story of the Wright brothers.  Apparently, they regularly and vigorously disagreed with one another while designing the propeller for the plane that ultimately took flight at Kitty Hawk. Orville is quoted as saying, “After long arguments we often found ourselves in the ludicrous position of each having been converted to the other’s side, with no more agreement than when the discussion began.”  In the end, they discovered they were both wrong and concluded that a radically different design was needed.

When teams can candidly debate strategy, new product launches, technology investments, or who should be promoted, they’re less likely to crash their figurative planes due to a faulty propeller.  Lencioni describes organizational politics as conflict without trust, and he warns that boring, low conflict meetings are a sign of trouble. Teams that can harness the power of conflict while greatly reducing or eliminating politics are more innovative and have a tremendous competitive advantage.

And as it happens, this article did help me in my parenting role as well.  True to my “S” DiSC style, my natural tendency is to strive for harmony and calm conflict.  I am guilty of jumping in to my kid’s conflicts to try to help them “get along” or “be nice”.  But life is full of conflict – with siblings, co-workers, friends, bosses, neighbors, spouses, etc.  I want my daughters to be equipped to engage in healthy conflict – the type based on trust, respect, open mindedness and a search for the best outcome.  This article reminded me that our home should be a safe place to practice.  And like everything about parenting, they’ll learn better from what I model versus what I say.  So if you’ll excuse me, I need to go have a long overdue discussion with my husband about how he loads the dishwasher.

Team dynamics are an important predictor of organizational health. Teams that work well together perform better. Download The Blueprint for Team Cohesion to learn how your teams can get to the next-level.



Amy Dunn

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