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Why Healthy Teams Fight Often

Think all of that smooth, relational harmony is a sign of team health? Think again.

This article originally appeared in my column at Inc.

What comes to mind when you imagine a healthy, creative team? Relational harmony? Chemistry?

How about conflict? The truth is, without good amount of healthy argument, your team is likely underperforming.

It may sound odd, but some of the least healthy teams I encounter are ones that never fight. They pretend to get along, but they’re really pushing all of their disagreement just beneath the surface where it lies ready to explode at a moment’s notice. In practice, all of that disagreement finds an outlet somewhere, whether it’s at the coffee shop, behind closed doors, or through small, passive-aggressive actions.

However, fighting isn’t necessarily a sign of health either. If you want your team to be creatively healthy and productive, you have to learn to fight fair. Here are three rules for success:

Fight over ideas, not over personality

It’s fine to call into question whether your co-worker’s idea is really the best direction for a project, but it’s never OK to make that snarky comment about his sense of style. You want to center your conflicts around differences of opinion about ideas, and do your best to keep personal conflict out of the mix.

The truth is, without good amount of healthy argument, your team is probably underperforming.

Never dismiss an idea without first seeking its merits

No matter how terrible an idea may seem on the surface, there’s probably at least a kernel of value in it. At the very least, there’s enough value that your team member felt it was worth introducing. Commit as a team that you will seek to find the value rather than simply dismissing ideas wholesale. Sometimes a bad idea contains the seeds of a brilliant one.

One way to seek a seemingly bad idea’s merits is to ask a clarifying question before dismissing it. For example, “help me understand why…” or “how does this address X…”, or something that helps you gain perspective on what you might be missing.

Commit to having each other’s back, even when you disagree

Whether you win or lose an argument, it’s important to know that your teammates will fall in line behind whichever idea comes out on top. There’s nothing more destructive to team morale than knowing that someone is “phoning it in” because they didn’t get their way. Yes, be very assertive when you’re putting your idea into the mix, but passive-aggressive pouting when you don’t get your way will utterly destroy trust and respect. Agree in advance as a team that you are going to support the winning idea. Support your teammate when you lose an argument, because when you win the next one you’ll need your teammates to rally around you.

Don’t shy away from conflict on your team, but make sure that you have established some clear rules for fighting fair. Put your conflict out in the open so that you don’t have to worry about what’s happening behind closed doors.

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Last modified: December 1, 2022

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