What Is Healthy and Unhealthy Conflict?
Conflict is necessary — in fact, “Absence of Conflict” is the second of Patrick Lencioni’s Five Dysfunctions of a Team (best in video form, in my view). If we’re unable to engage in healthy conflict, we don’t benefit from everyone’s input and ideas, we don’t challenge the status quo, we don’t course-correct doomed courses of action, and we create an environment where people’s disagreement or frustration at not being heard will fester into toxic behaviours — including unhealthy conflict.
Healthy conflict is about ideas, it involves each side of the conflict genuinely trying to understand the others’ position so as to reach the best decision for all, will strive to arrive at a decision quickly, and will result in all sides disagreeing and committing.
Conflict is unhealthy when:
- It is about people and personalities rather than ideas — think “what idiot came up with this plan” as opposed to “I don’t think that’s a good plan”. This will break your team’s ability to work together.
- People on either side don’t feel heard and so don’t commit. This will result in a lack of support, passive resistance, relitigating decisions, resentment towards decision-makers and “I told you so” if and when things go wrong.
- Decisions require consensus, and where that is not possible you get either people avoiding talking about it or else setting up endless meetings and processes which don’t actually resolve anything (I’ve seen both of those go on for over a year on occasion).
- Escalation is either used for everything or nothing, and is perceived as either the only way to get things done or as hostile. Escalation should be a well-understood, safe process for breaking a tie.
So we know what we’re looking for — now, how do we interview for it?
Tell Me About a Time You Had A Conflict
I’m a proponent of behavioural interviews — the “tell me about a time when...” style of question. An abstract question like “tell me how you handle conflict” is likely to get either waffle or a recitation of something like Five Dysfunctions; anchoring questions in real situations leads to more productive conversations.
For conflict, something like “tell me about a time you disagreed with a peer” can work. Warning signs would be a focus on just trying to convince someone, the issue being avoided rather than resolved, letting the conflict spin out for a long time without getting resolved, or anything suggesting the other person is an idiot. Positives would be hearing out the other person, looking for potential compromises, using (or wishing there was) a healthy escalation path and a preference for disagreeing and committing.
For managers, you could also ask “tell me about a time when one or more of your reports disagreed with you”. Blunt use of your position is the obvious red flag; a common dodge is “I convinced them”, which you should respond to by pressing for what would have happened if they couldn’t. Signs I’m looking for include: did you hear them out, how did you make sure you understood their position, how did you make sure your report knew you understood, and how did you land the message of “I’ve heard you out, now I have to make a call and this is what it is”. There’s an option on performance management if the person won’t let it go and becomes belligerent, but it’s a clear warning sign if performance management is the first recourse.
Advanced Questions For Leaders
Those kinds of questions are appropriate for most levels; for more senior leaders (staff+ engineers and managers-of-managers), I like to lead in with one of the ones above and then transition to: “OK, we agree on what healthy conflict looks like — what steps do you, as a leader, take to create an environment where healthy conflict exists?”.
This is one where you can get a bunch of waffle, but if they can proactively talk about the following that’s a good sign:
- Setting an example personally. This could be in a conflict specifically — for instance offering public praise for people who do disagree with them — but they may also talk about modelling vulnerability, such as being public with their own mistakes or shortcomings (the first of the Five Dysfunctions being the absence of vulnerability-based trust).
- Educating the team on what healthy conflict looks like. This could be personal advocacy at venues like Town Halls, recommended reading, or similar; it could also include changing team ceremonies to include things like turn-taking and bias interrupters (see biasinterrupters.org for resources).
- As an extension of the above, making healthy conflict explicitly part of people’s job expectations (perhaps in your written Levelling Guide) and holding people accountable to that.
- Creating a documented escalation process and making it safe to use when a tie-breaker is required. Bonus points for steps to ensure it’s used in a timely fashion.
- Running retrospectives in instances where conflict either hasn’t happened where it needed to, became unhealthy, or was not resolved in a timely fashion — including steps to ensure that lessons learned are actually applied across the team.
If they don’t bring any of these points up, you can press on them. Here are some questions you can use:
- How do you draw out productive conflict from individuals or teams who are conflict-avoidant or are used to negative consequences for speaking up?
- How do you instil an understanding of what healthy and unhealthy conflict is in your team?
- How do you ensure your team feels accountable for healthy conflict?
- What processes do you put in place to help when people are in conflict?
- What steps do you take to ensure you have visibility on whether conflict is happening, if it is healthy and if it is resolved in a timely and amicable manner?
- In the case where you observe conflict avoidance or unhealthy conflict, how do you ensure that everyone learns from the experience to do better next time?