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How to Eliminate Conflict Debt in Your Organization

Avoiding conflict only makes things worse. Conflict debt is a heavy burden to carry – unresolved issues can make your team go bankrupt.

By Gustavo Razzetti

June 30, 2021

For high-performing teams, collaboration and innovation start with embracing friction. Disagreements and differences are critical to a positive workplace culture and overall team productivity. Here’s how to start reducing conflict debt.

Conflict has a bad rap. Most of us have been raised to think of it as a negative thing. However, not all frictions are created equal. Conflict can be uncomfortable, but also constructive.

Time won’t make your team's problems disappear. Avoiding conflict only makes things worse. I’m used to seeing executives roll their eyes when I urge them to discuss conflict in the open. It’s natural wanting to dodge tough conversations. However, avoiding them creates a conflict debt that’s hard to pay down.

In this post, I will discuss why conflict is a sign of healthy workplace cultures. The solution to unresolved issues is more conflict, not less.

Conflict Debt: The Heavy Burden Your Team Is Carrying

Workplace conflict is a natural aspect of any high functioning team. Well-managed conflict has the power to increase trust and respect in your organization. The unfortunate truth is that fully-remote and hybrid teams tend to have more less-manageable conflict. It feels easier to avoid friction when colleagues don’t see each other.

The Stinky Fish is a metaphor for issues that teams carry and avoid discussing – the longer we avoid it, the stinkier it gets. Not only does the ‘fish’ become rotten, but it ends up contaminating the broader company culture.

Avoiding the stinky fish within your team creates conflict debt – a heavy burden for members to carry.

In the book The Good Fight, Liane Davey introduces the idea of “conflict debt” and describes the danger of avoiding conflict in the workplace. The constant pursuit of workplace happiness and building a positive culture can backfire. Over-the-top positivity can quickly become toxic. Authenticity, honesty, and trust end up being replaced by fake behaviors.

When people are expected to be nice rather than honest (hint: it's not one or the other), they end up suppressing their true emotions. They look friendly and collaborative on the outside. But, on the inside, they’re filled with doubt, anger, fear, blame, and frustration.

Davey defines conflict debt as “the sum of all contentious issues that need to be addressed to be able to move forward but instead remain undiscussed and unresolved.” Conflict debt gets in the way of progress. Rather than go around conflict, we need to go through it.

Conflict debt keeps piling up as team members withhold feedback, filter their true feelings, avoid addressing what everybody is thinking, or procrastinate when making tough decisions.

As the author explains, conflict isn’t bad for organizations. It’s actually fundamental in order to learn and thrive. By embracing different viewpoints and integrating opposing perspectives, teams can find better solutions and avoid groupthink.

Conflict in the workplace between team members uncovers new business opportunities. As Andrew de Maar, head of strategy at Deloitte, wrote, “Differences in background experience and opinion can lead to fresh insights and perspectives that can directly affect how a product is made, how it’s brought to market, and how it’s received by customers.”

Positive friction is the spark that sets the creative fire free. Disagreement allows team members to:

• Strengthen belonging and bonding by making it safe for people to bring their true selves to work (Level 1 of Psychological Safety)

• Feel safe to embrace cognitive friction and challenge ideas or perspectives (Level 2 of Psychological Safety)

• Innovate by gaining new perspectives and disrupting the status quo (Level 3 of Psychological Safety)

Diversity of perspectives is linked to greater innovation and performance. Research by McKinsey shows that more diverse teams generate higher profits than their more homogenous counterparts.

Promoting diversity of thought is not friction-free, however. Designing teams with different skill sets and life experiences requires intention, but also the choice of unconventional paths over safe ones.

As authors Debbie Ferguson and Fredrick “Flee” Lee points out in this HBR article, “Many stellar engineers have no formal certifications or degrees; some didn’t go to college. We believe that there’s no single “best” route to a role. Often, less-traveled roads can provide invaluable experience and unexpected perspectives.”

Unfortunately, most teams don’t embrace conflict. Instead, they avoid, stigmatize, and silence it. The conflict debt piles up, making it harder for team members to carry the heavy burden.

Unproductive Ways to Deal with Conflict Debt

Conflict is a clash of interests, values, actions, views, or directions. Disagreement among people is the basis of friction. We all see things differently, want different things, or think differently. Conflict is not the problem. How we manage it can be either destructive or constructive.

Friction is inevitable. Especially among smart, high-performing team members. The more people want to change things, the more opposition and difference they’ll face.

Why does conflict arise?

According to Edward de Bono, there are various sources:

  • People disagree because they have different personalities, perspectives, or thinking styles
  • Concerns with fear, force, fairness, or budgets
  • Higher status executives who want always to be right

As with financial debt, conflict debt starts small – it’s usually unnoticed until it’s too late. Liane Davey shares three unproductive ways people deal with sensitive issues that end up weighing the team down.

1. Letting bad behaviors happen by minimizing the real danger

We fool ourselves into thinking that the little tension with our colleague will vanish. Or we pretend that not having our manager supporting our initiatives is not a big deal. We buy ourselves time and space, thinking that everything will be okay. However, anxiety keeps piling up and we feel guilty for not doing much to change things.

2. Avoiding the fact that people don’t agree with us

Rather than trying to understand others’ viewpoints – and using them to challenge our own – we exclude those who disagree with us from the conversation. Instead, we surround ourselves with Yes-People. We create conflict debt by focusing on friendly conversations rather than on resolving differences with our opponents.

3. Postponing the friction

When a conversation is getting to a point where the team is about to address a sensitive topic, we call for a time-out. Some members either want to continue debating in a smaller group or at a more appropriate time. However, the conflict debt keeps racking up as they never come back to the crux of the matter.

In How the Mighty Fall, Jim Collins chronicles how destructive conflict accelerates the downfall of companies. Some of the destructive behaviors include:

- People shield those in power from reality for fear of retaliation

- Executives compete to be the smartest person in the room instead of identifying the best solutions

- People use force rather than data to advance their ideas

- Low mistake tolerance; blaming each other when things go wrong

Conflict becomes constructive when we shift from judging people to debating concepts and ideas. It becomes a means for discussing viewpoints and landing on the best possible solution.

Companies that are on their way up embrace constructive conflict. They are willing to address unpleasant facts, focus on collective gains, and accept personal responsibility. Companies on the rise don’t let politics create more debt; they promote positive friction instead.

Once conflict debt becomes too high, it feels overwhelming. It can ruin your culture. Without radical candor and psychological safety, your team will go bankrupt.

How to Eliminate Conflict Debt in Your Team

Turn conflict into growth

The most memorable moments of teams are often marked with difficult learning moments. Mistakes happen for a reason, especially when you are on the path of experimentation. Giving – and receiving – candid, constructive feedback is not easy. However, addressing tensions and differences in the open is critical if you want team members to learn and grow.

Difficult feedback changes you. It uncovers blind spots and opens new doors for learning. Feedback is a necessary tool to unlock personal growth.

As Rodney Williams, the founder of Lisnr, told Slack, “I think when you’re too comfortable, you’re too complacent, and then if you’re too comfortable, I don’t think you innovate.” He and his team lean into the discomfort around disagreement.

Successful organizations know that learning is a painful experience. Without conflict, teams can’t grow.

Uncover the stinky fish

It’s never too late to address unresolved issues with your team and prevent the conflict debt piling up any further. Unaddressed problems will only get worse through time.

Use the Uncover the Stinky Fish Canvas to capture what everybody is thinking but no one is saying, what’s keeping you anxious, your uncertainties, and the past issues that the team can’t get over.

Map out the conflict affecting each member. Consolidate the results and prioritize the key issues affecting the majority of the team.

Choose the most adequate facilitation method for the Stinky Fish activity, considering the level of psychological safety of your team.

Map out the tensions that should exist

Liane Davey recommends normalizing conflict by mapping out both the unique values of each team's roles and the tensions that should exist among them.

For each role, ask:

1) What is the unique value of this role on this team? What should this person be paying attention to that no one else is? What would we miss if this role wasn’t here?

2) On which stakeholders is this role focused? Whom does it serve? Who defines success?

3) What is the most common tension this role puts on team discussions? What one thing does the person in this role have to say that frequently makes others bristle?

Debrief the exercise altogether, emphasizing how the different roles are supposed to be in conflict with each one another. Reaffirm the benefit of having different perspectives and skills within the team. Increased awareness and a shared language help turn conflict into fuel for innovation.

Move past the conflict productively

The key to resolving conflict is moving past winning or losing and the need to be right, according to mediator Diane Rosen. She believes that conflict resolution doesn’t need to be perfect, but to allow the different parties to co-exist.

Avoid making things personal. No one, no matter how dysfunctional, is the single source of conflict. Empathize with other people’s points of view. Try to understand them rather than win an argument. Create opportunities to discuss topics that used to be off-limits.

Bozoma Saint John, who led branding at Uber and Apple Music, encourages her team to view criticism neutrally and not take feedback personally. Pushback helped the marketing expert evolve the first iteration of Apple Music and discover better solutions. She told Fast Company that, “Any criticism, you should pay attention to. Whether you accept it and change or you take it and move on is your choice, but criticism is not a bad thing.”

Once you've de-escalated conflict, be ready to let go of resentment and move forward. Pay conflict debt and enjoy a healthier trust score. Forgive the tense discussions and what people said to you, especially if things got tense at some point.

Forgiveness is the secret of successful teams. Research shows that promoting forgiveness in the workplace increases trust, well-being, collaboration, and productivity. It also encourages personal accountability by replacing blame with a sense of ownership and maturity.

Learn from past conflicts

Some conflicts are resolved well; others, so-so. Most end unresolved or buried in the growing pile of conflict debt.

Team retrospectives are effective to improve and learn from past issues. The New Zealand All Blacks are not just the best rugby team in history, but one of the most successful sports teams ever – their all-time winning percentage is 77.41%.

The All Blacks' success is the result of a high-transparency, high-accountability culture. The team practices feedback in the open and as one. Once a match is over, rather than focusing on past mistakes or blame, players address issues together. They focus on improving as a team rather than on how each individual played.

Use the Conflict Management Canvas to reflect on issues you experienced in previous teams and organizations.

Have each team reflect on how the issues were resolved (or not). Using the Thomas-Kilmann model, map out the different approaches used. Proceed to reflect as a group on what worked or what didn't. Identify the mindsets, behaviors, and emotions that helped resolve conflict – or the ones that got in the way.

Finally, brainstorm five key actions that the team want to implement to avoid conflict debt mounting.

Constructively Resolve Conflict at Work

Conflict isn’t bad or good but a necessary instrument in order to come to a resolution in the best interests of the people, the company, and its customers. Conflict is not bad. How your team approaches it can be destructive or constructive.

Effective conflict resolution cannot erase the past but can prevent your debt from continuing to pile up. Unresolved and undiscussed issues won’t go away. They only get stinkier over time.

Coach your team to address conflict early and in the open. It’s better to have a little bit of friction than carrying the balance over as the interests continue to mount.

Positive friction is the foundation of a healthy workplace culture. Don’t let conflict avoidance make your team go bankrupt.

Reach out if you need help resolving conflict in your team. Let's discuss how we can help you eliminate conflict debt in your organization.

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