Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book Team of Rivals explores the rare ability Abraham Lincoln called upon to assemble a highly functional cabinet of political adversaries. Chief among his talents was the capacity to see a problem from another person’s perspective. By doing so he gained more than an understanding of their motivations, he gained insight for problem solving, and how to guide a nation through its most harrowing season. He could have assembled a more congenial team but he chose the dynamic tension and creativity of opposing perspectives to lead when the stakes were high.
Every team is connected by a common purpose, and potentially derailed by factions competing goals. This is natural and unavoidable. It may also be the most energizing aspect of teamwork. Under the protection of a team’s rules of engagement conflict can foster innovation for direction and decisions.
The ability to tolerate respectful disagreement is essential. As a culture we prize speed in decision-making, and often learn that we have moved forward without consideration for the implications of the changes we introduce. Think of each decision as a stone tossed into the pond that is your organization. A brief discussion of these ripples across the organization will circumvent the need for costly decision-making rework.
By inviting different perspectives our decisions are scrutinized and strengthened. Unless we intentionally bring together divergent thinkers and require that questions and concerns are voiced the quality of our vision and leadership will suffer.
Many strong leaders inadvertently weaken the team through blindness to their own influence. The most natural course is for the leader’s style to become the team’s style as they adapt to the alpha team member’s methods and pace. Again, this leads to a congenial group in which we value agreement, and where divergent views are ignored or overridden without due consideration. The more conflict friendly group will invite disagreement in the spirit of Stephen Covey’s statement, “where two agree one is unnecessary.”
An intentional leader of rivals will understand that some members process information by talking it out, while others want to think it through more privately. That leader will use breaks judiciously to give the more introverted members uninterrupted time to process and return to the table ready to discuss and choose. A Lincoln influenced leader will also draw out dissenting opinions and rival hypotheses. That leader will require that implementation of decisions is supported by all in public and so must alternatives first be voiced with the group in private.
This style requires a very aware and engaged leader who is at once able to track personal thoughts and emotions as well as those of other team members. Mediating the time parameters for discussion, determining when all quarters have been heard from, and intervening when discussion takes the turn toward egotism are vital leadership behaviors. We sometimes need help from others to see when we are arguing from ego (e.g. arguing with the sole purpose of winning). I call this the seesaw effect as each time my opponent makes a point I take a step away from the middle to a more extreme position. My fellow conversant balances me with a corresponding step back, until we are at opposite ends of the seesaw arguing from extremes. At this point I usually forget what the original disagreement was about, but I am certain I am winning.
By purposing to eschew any decision until it has been tested by an opposing view and consideration of the ripples the change will cause we ensure better results of our team efforts. Individual decision-making will also improve as independent members use the lessons learned in open debate to question and improve their own perspective.
The heat of conflict in an environment of respect will produce much greater results from the team. Gather talented, dedicated, and passionate individuals and require civility while drawing on their differences to create better outcomes.
INSERT: Rules of engagement
Building Trust: What behaviors/commitments are important to build trust on the team? (e.g. limits of confidentiality)
Conflict: What guidelines for conflict do you think are important? (e.g. will silence be interpreted as disagreement?)
Commitment: What behavior will show you an appropriate level of commitment? (e.g. dealing with distractions)
Accountability: How much accountability do you want? (e.g. do you want members to check-in regarding progress on your goals?)
Results: When will it be proper to prioritize the groups’ goals over self- interest?