Want to lead a great team? Encourage more conflict

Fight with business rival

In my last blog, I described the three layers of conversations in a team.  The technical, teaming and personal layers.  The personal layer provides the foundation of a team’s performance.  It creates an psychologically safe environment that enables effective teaming.  In a psychologically safe environment team members feel safe to take risks and be vulnerable in front of each other.

This is one of the key things that sets a high performing apart from ordinary ones.  Team members are usually reluctant to take a personal risk for fear of diminishing their own status.  This might be the fear of looking stupid in front of others.  It can also be the fear of offending others.  If team members are reluctant to take risks, the team does not gain the full benefit of its diverse talents.

Great teams embrace conflict

This is where conflict comes in.  Teams are groups of people who have different perspectives, technical and personal skills.  Each of us are different and when we share ideas, there will inevitably be a conflict of ideas.  This is where the good stuff happens.  By sharing and discussing all conflicting ideas on a topic, the team will often arrive at a better answer.  This is the essence of innovation.  Bringing together diverse ideas to create something new.

How do leaders establish psychological safety?

The team leader has a critical role in establishing a psychologically safe environment.  They can also easily create the opposite.  So what can leaders do to cultivate psychological safety?  Amy Edmondson in her groundbreaking book “Teaming” describes three groups of leadership behavior:

  1. Give the team a voice.  This involves working one on one with team members to build trust.  In the team setting foster open dialog and transparency.
  2. Make room to fail safely.  When team members fear the consequences of failure, they will be risk averse.  Learning from failure is essential to solving the complex problems we regularly face.  What worked in the past will often not work in the future.  Leadership behaviors include encouraging the sharing of mistakes.  This is the opposite of playing the blame game.
  3. Lead by example.  The behaviors in #1 and #2 will only occur if the leader goes first and leads by example.  This includes being willing to admit they don’t know and ask for help from the team.  It is also important to transparently share their own mistakes.

Leading takes courage.  Admitting our limitations in front of others is a necessary and very courageous action.  Some people look at this behavior as exhibiting weakness.  In my experience it is exactly the opposite.  The best leaders are willing to do this.

The accompanying guide provides more detail about how leaders cultivate psychological safety.  You can download it at the link below.