How to Make Sure Your Team Engages in Constructive Conflict

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Getting Team Members to Engage in Constructive Conflict is Critical to Getting the Best Ideas.

It’s no secret that your team will come up with the best ideas when they engage in spirited debate.  The challenge is that too often teams play ‘nice’ and do not always speak up when they have divergent views. Or perhaps they do speak up, just not in a constructive way, and this can lead to even less participation from other team members in the future.

Working in a remote environment only makes this predicament worse as team members cannot ‘see’ the verbal clues from their peers – clues that might encourage them to speak up. To make matters worse, it is easier for more outspoken team members to dominate the conversation.

How to encourage conflict

What we need is a simple way to break this pattern of interaction with the team. A way to encourage conflict in a constructive way. One that can even work in a remote environment.

Want better ideas from your team? Follow this simple process:

In order to encourage dialogue in an honest and constructive way we suggest taking a lesson from history. In the early 16th century the Catholic Church began appointing a ‘devil’s advocate’ to argue against the canonization of a candidate for sainthood. It was this person’s job to take a skeptical view in order to promote debate. It is important to note that their actual views were irrelevant to the role they were asked to play.

Since many team members may be reluctant to voice their concerns or viewpoints, appointing a devil’s advocate provides two important benefits:

  1. It immediately causes at least one member of the team to have to argue against a particular course of action.
  2. Since at least one member of the team is thinking both critically and skeptically – it opens the door for other team members to add opinions that may have been difficult to voice otherwise.

Our recommendation is that you rotate the role of devil’s advocate rather than allowing one person to assume to the role permanently. This will ensure that each team member is forced to develop their critical thinking skills and presentation skills. It also ensures a diversity of opinion and insight is promoted within the team.

Here is the process we recommend that you follow:

  1. Identify an issue or a project that there are – or there should be – different viewpoints on.
  2. Identify an individual that has either an interest or knowledge in the subject matter to be discussed, or perhaps you just want to get them involved.
  3. Reach out to the team member you have identified and let them know that you would like them to play the role of devil’s advocate. Giving this individual enough advance notice of their role should improve the quality and clarity of their arguments.
  4. Brief the team ahead of time on your plan to encourage critical thinking by utilizing a devil’s advocate. Introduce who will be playing the devil’s advocate role. Encourage team members to forward any ideas that would help their team member playing the devil’s advocate prepare for the discussion.
  5. When the day of the meeting (whether remote or not) arrives, make sure you remind the entire team of the process you are using. Introduce the devil’s advocate to the team and make sure everyone understands their role. While the devil’s advocate’s role is to be skeptical, other team members are always welcome to chime in on any side of the discussion.
  6. After the discussion is over, be sure to conduct an After Action Review. Ask team members for feedback on what worked well and what could be done better next time. In fact, the team could provide feedback to the devil’s advocate on their performance afterward. This would serve as insight to all team members on how to prepare for future assignments when they are asked to be the devil’s advocate.

That’s it. Oh, except for one thing. What about the naturally argumentative team member? We do not recommend allowing them to take a point of view that they agree with. Make sure that you assign them a role where they have to defend against their actual view point. This will cause them to be a little less passionate and perhaps more thoughtful in the way that they engage with the team.

This post is an adaptation of a insight that I first gained from “To Foster Innovation, Cultivate a Culture of Intellectual Bravery,” by Timothy R. Clark.