The Necessity of Conflict

By banning conflict from project meetings, how much are you losing?

Last Friday I wrote about the most recent business book I read, Patrick Lencioni’s Death By Meeting: A Leadership Fable about Solving the Most Painful Problems in Business. Out of all of the ideas in the book (and there were many great ones!), the idea that stuck with me the most was the need for meeting leaders and/or facilitators to seek out and highlight conflict. In the book, this is highlighted as not only a way to ensure active participation in the meeting, but also to ensure that all opinions are aired, all ideas are discussed and the solutions that result from the meeting are the best that they can be and are supported by all.

The reason this stuck with me is because of my firm belief that a little dose of honestly in even heated situations goes a lot farther towards resolution than conflict avoidance. I love Romantic Comedies, and I have a lot of favorites including the Bridget Jones series, You’ve Got Mail and He’s Just Not That Into You. While I love these movies, I am also the first to recognize that if there had been clear communication from the start, the movies would have been resolved in 20 minutes or less. If Bridget and Mr. Darcy had been upfront about their attraction to each other, there would have been no need for Darcy to get engaged to the horrible Natasha or for Bridget to waste her time with Daniel Cleaver. If Joe Fox had fessed up to owning Fox Books when he was in the Shop Around The Corner the first day with his children, Kathleen and Joe could have started out their relationship on much stronger footing. And as for the cast of He’s Just Not That Into You…you get the idea. A dose of honest communication would have solved a world of hurt for all of the characters.

Businesswoman and five-time CEO Margaret Heffernan presented a TED Talk in May of 2015 at TEDWomen titled Forget the Pecking Order At Work. It’s a remarkable talk that points out that modern proscriptions for how to be successful focus on being a superstar, which has the effect of limiting success for businesses as superstars begin tearing each other down to remain at the top.

In her talk, Heffernan hit on several of the same points Lencioni highlighted when it comes to making meetings better:

  •  In an MIT experiment, the most successful problem solving groups were groups where participants were given equal time, ensuring that there was no one dominating voice, but that there were also no “passengers” (a key feature of the bringing out conflict piece in Lencioni’s book).
  • Conflict in these situations is frequent because candor is safe. Candor being safe is a necessity in this situation, and it comes only through social capital and trust (which cannot be created by trust exercises and idiotic team building retreats). This is also a key feature in Lencioni’s work.

Lately I’ve been diving into the world of Project Management. I’ve been doing some basic reading on the subject, holding discussions around the office and thinking about my past experiences with project management as I move towards both Project Management certification and in moving my career in that direction. What I can’t help but wonder is how many more projects would be more successful if we let conflict have a place in the room?

In business and in meetings of all forms, we are all taught to avoid conflict for fear of someone in the room taking offense and filing a harassment complaint. This is a necessary response to most corporate culture today, and it is perfectly understandable how this situation developed. But by banning conflict from project meetings, how much are you losing? At the least, you are probably losing:
– Active group participation by all participants (not just the loudest one with the “best” ideas.)
– A wider variety of ideas and solutions (as silent participants do not offer their opinions, especially if they run counter to feelings expressed by the group.)
Clarity on the part of participants as to their roles/responsibilities (what if the task  you want someone to do is better assigned to someone else? Will the participant feel safe to offer that advice?)
– Diverse perspectives and observations to avoid dangers of scope creep (PM’s can’t know the details of everything, but those who do know the details can be better attuned to the risks of scope creep.)
– A completely supportive group (How many of your participants are leaving the meeting to complain about the results of the meeting?)

What project would not be well served by more variety, clarity, perspective and support from participants?

On a Side NoteAn important caveat: The conflict must be productive and geared towards the discussion at hand. Passions will be stirred and discussions may get heated, but so long as they are on-point they should be allowed to continue until clarity/consensus is reached or until they are no longer productive. The minute threats, insults, intimidation, outright violence or non-meeting related subjects are introduced, discussion should be halted and a cool down immediately instituted. Also keep in mind that some people will be better equipped to handle this kind of high-pressure environment than others; if you have a participant who is frequently violating the rules, even if they may be an important project stakeholder, it may be best to meet with them separately.

At this stage, all of this is theoretical. But I can’t help but wonder if acknowledging the necessity of conflict in the workplace, and more specifically in project management, would gain net benefits?


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