Last week, author Matthew Syed posted this on LinkedIn:

Conflict is part of how teams get to the best results.

We can’t agree on the best answers, if we don’t debate our ideas.

The best teams realise that dynamic and sometimes conflicting conversations do not fracture the spirit of the team, but enable us to achieve the best outcome.

Sometimes, internal conflict is essential for external success.

#DiversityOfThought.

I had diversity of thought. I don’t agree. And, for what’s it’s worth and to prove my point… I’m in no conflict with Syed for saying so.

I responded to his post:

I agree wholeheartedly with the principle that disagreement and dissent are essential in high functioning teams. But I don’t believe these are the same as conflict. By its very nature, conflict is oppositional and fracturing. No good teams I’ve worked with have been in conflict. But they often passionately disagree.

I thought I’d use this week’s blog to say a bit more about it…

Conflict and disagreement: are they the same?

The increasing complexity that executive leaders face means the potential for disagreement in issue identification, option appraisal, problem solving, and decision making is highly likely.

It follows that the more effectively a team works through these disagreements, the more effective it will be. That’s where Syed and I agree.

But we part company on the idea that conflict is the same as disagreement and that they are both necessary.

I work with executive teams every day and I have the privilege to observe them in their collective work. In my experience, there is a qualitative difference between a team in disagreement and a team in conflict.

In a team in disagreement, the issue tends to be held more closely in mind. It is the thing to be debated. It’s not about ‘John’ or ‘Megan’ or whoever else. It’s about it. The thing being debated. The conversation can get heated, voices can be raised and it’s common to see exasperation and frustration. It can get tense. But what doesn’t happen is threat – psychological threat – to any individuals.

It’s here that I’d draw on the work of Amy Edmondson on psychological safety in which team members share the belief that they will not be punished, humiliated or attacked for being open about questions, beliefs and concerns. Teams in conflict tend to have lower levels of psychological safety. The issues become personal and the ability to speak up to disagree comes with a personal risk.

Conflict avoidance

What Syed may have been advocating, rather than teams being in conflict was actually for teams not being conflict avoidant. These are very different states.

The opposite of teams engaging in healthy disagreement and debate is not conflict. It’s conflict avoidance. That’s where there is something that needs to be said, that ought to be said, but which isn’t. It’s often dressed behind a fear that we don’t want to hurt people or have it land badly with them. This is a noble aim. But it’s usually misplaced. The avoidance of conflict often feels worse than having a straightforward disagreement.

Teams who are conflict avoidant tend to miss the timing of major decisions; they tend to get too far into an issue and then have a bigger issue to deal with. And they tend to let bitterness and resentment simmer.

And the impact on stress and burnout is significantly higher in teams characterised as conflict avoidant than with those with lots of debate.

I can summarise my position as Learn to disagree well – but learn to disagree.

By Jacqueline Conway…

Dr Jacqueline Conway works with CEOs and executive teams as they fully step into their collective enterprise-wide leadership, helping them transform their impact and effectiveness.

Jacqueline is Waldencroft’s Managing Director. Based in Edinburgh, she works globally with organisations facing disruption in the new world of work.

About Jacqueline Conway