Paging through textbooks on how to manage people I noticed how much time is dedicated to the importance of establishing harmony within the workspace. The picture is painted of the utopian workspace where everyone is in agreement on everything all of the time and they are working together without a hitch. According to this literature, creating this harmonious workspace is the ultimate goal and measurement of the good manager.
I disagree. Harmony is an undesirable goal in a functional workspace. The objective is not to create a workspace where everyone is agreeing. The objective is to build a workspace where the capability is developed to recognise hitches, speak about it and experiment with countermeasures. It’s the manager’s role to facilitate time, resources and a safe space to allow for countermeasures. The manager also needs to be aware that managers are often poorly positioned to provide countermeasures to on-the-floor issues.
Any manager that views harmony as the goal of teamwork is setting themselves up for failure. Diversity in personality, culture and generational gaps in the modern workspace make it an impossible goal. Managers should aim to celebrate the diversity of opinions and to create space for constructive conflict. Conflict should be seen as a sign of diverse perspectives and people that are thinking about what they do and how they do it.
If everyone is thinking alike, then no one is thinking. Benjamin Franklin
A team that is focused only on harmony will not perform well; people might not speak up due to the fear of creating conflict. This leads to stagnation and the stifling of good ideas. What a good team needs is a bit of substantive conflict that is solely focused on tasks, policies, and work problems (rather than individuals).
This type of conflict stirs creativity, new thinking, experimentation and leads to improved ways. It is conflict that challenges the way things are done, never settling for less than what is best at the time.
A note of caution: extremes are never good and as much as too much harmony may lead to stagnation, conflict that is not managed well or allowed to become affective and uncontrolled is dysfunctional. So a balance must be found.
Ways to balance conflict:
- Psychological safety. The manager needs to create an environment where people feel safe enough to speak up, and where they are willing to experiment without the need to defend themselves.
- Address issues appropriately. Use facts such as measurements to tackle a problem as opposed to tackling a person.
- Establish ground rules. Establish parameters within conflict behaviour within teams, where people can treat each other with respect throughout the conflict.
- Accountability. Allow for people at the lowest possible level in the organisation to be accountable and take responsibility for resolving issues at their level, prior to escalation.
- Coaching on communication and listening skills. In most organisations little time is spent on personal development, and people using constructive communication is vital in managing conflict effectively.
- Formal problem-solving techniques. Train everyone in the organisation on how to use methodologies such as the A3 process to address problems, whichever technique is used it should be focused on the problem or causes of conflict as opposed to people.
- Explore alternative hypotheses. Assign a responsible person for this role, and support them in testing these alternatives whilst using a standardised problem solving technique.
- Manager as mentor. The manager needs to set the example by welcoming conflict and demonstrating that challenges can be dealt with constructively.
If we want team members that question, always strive to work better and improve, and who always find new ways to add value, we need to ask ourselves: as manager, is our ultimate goal that of harmony or is it one of creative tension?
A great team is not the absence of conflict. It’s the presence of a reconciling spirit. When a team shares a strong sense of community, team members can resolve conflict in such a way that strengthens relationships, rather than weakens them.