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Opinion piece on team harmony by Wendy Bergsteedt, Group Head of Marketing at Coronation Fund Managers, and Chrizelda Walters, Consciousness Coach & Industrial Psychologist at FAB Consulting.

Making room for healthy conflict in the workplace

Breaking away from the shackles of artificial harmony and embracing healthy conflict in a business is the best way to unlock the performance potential of individuals and teams. But it’s not an easy process and requires nurturing, introspection and a deeper understanding of our blind spots.

“If you avoid conflict to keep the peace, you start a war inside yourself” is a phrase that best describes the likely outcome of team members who coexist in an environment of artificial harmony. A common misconception is that harmony in teams is desirable and therefore reaps positive results. However, many leaders do aspire to achieve just that: a harmonious working environment where there is as little conflict or discord as possible. But we all know unequivocal agreement and consensus on all matters arising is practically impossible.

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Should the team agree on everything, for the sake of peace?

Various studies have shown that the answer to that question is more often than not a no. Instead, cognitive diversity is imperative for businesses that want to encourage different ways of thinking that lead to positive and often unexpected results. For that reason, we seek out people with different backgrounds and ways of thinking when recruiting. For us, difference equals magic. It enables deep thinking, robust debate and engagement. But to achieve that, we need to nurture people’s ability to be comfortable with the rigours demanded of healthy conflict.

Don’t avoid conflict – have the tough conversations!

Robust debate and disagreements can be enormous triggers for certain personalities. Many people are not comfortable with disputes in a team and will do anything to avoid this. What usually transpires is that people agree to just maintain a sense of accord and prevent any tension.

But this ultimately has a negative impact because tensions build beneath the surface when we don’t share our honest views. More damaging is that this can sometimes result in sidebar discussions after meetings with colleagues who we believe share our sentiments. This is where white-anting, which erodes the foundation of the team, and resentment is born. Trust is then lost, motivation undermined, and ultimately, performance and productivity adversely affected.

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Self-awareness is critical for genuine team harmony

Self-awareness is critical for individual and team success. The most prominent problem teams face is not knowing what they don’t know. Blind spots, assumptions and over-confidence hinder the performance of both individuals and teams. Blind spots are traits of which we are usually unaware until someone points them out. The level of self-awareness of each member of a team dramatically affects how a team collaborates, communicates and performs. Without self-awareness, we move through life disconnected from how others perceive and experience us.

Artificial harmony explained…

When we agree to things to avoid feeling uncomfortable, the brain processes this dissonance negatively – because our thoughts and actions are incongruent. This creates a false sense of alignment among team members – something we call artificial harmony. This is a very common phenomenon practised in business and corporate environments for the simple reason of self-preservation because speaking up is usually seen as costing you something, doesn’t it?

According to Patrick Lencioni, artificial harmony exists when we act as if we agree, yet frustrations and dislikes exist. Teams usually evolve to become high-performance teams through a set of development stages as they negotiate their shared values, priorities and ways of working together.

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Examples of artificial harmony

Managers often avoid confronting team members who consistently underdeliver and avoid having tough conversations. Typically, they instead opt to delegate the work to the star players on the team. This causes an imbalance of responsibility, and the star performers eventually “burn out”. Artificial harmony in action is really the resentment that bubbles beneath the surface of all members of the team – the exceptional executors, the poor performers and the manager.

Exceptional teams are not born, they are established.

Teams committing to introspection and creating unique contracts and effective ways of working together will harness the gifts of their team style. Exceptional teams are the ones who shoot the lights out. They work smart and achieve the goals. They are not the ones who meet the basic requirements of their jobs; they are the ones who produce unexpected results. Extraordinary results are usually achieved in environments where there is trust, diversity and transparency – traits that are not inherent in all teams and need to be discovered, adopted and nurtured.

Teams would be exceptional if we all stepped into our courage and embraced the diversity of perceptions and opinions that inevitably exist in a team. To solve complexities in business, we need teams to adopt an agile and adaptive mentality, and it’s a leader’s job to augment these varied views to serve a bigger purpose than individual agendas.

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Steps to build healthy team harmony

Even among the best teams, cognitive diversity may at times be uncomfortable. Thus you need to invest time and commitment into the process of nurturing a team’s comfort level with healthy conflict. Understanding and changing habitual patterns doesn’t happen overnight – both for individuals and teams. Understanding everyone’s viewpoints and gauging their comfort levels with disagreement is important because these can differ radically.

Other actions that need to be taken to bolster an individual or team’s capacity to embrace dissonance include the following:

  1. Identify your comfort zones and step out of them.
  2. Make time to step back because this will allow you to process and internalise your experiences and relieve any feelings of anxiety.
  3. Identify hot buttons/triggers you need to address.
  4. Develop insights into effectively navigating the inevitable discomforts that will come up when engaging in robust debates.
  5. Come up with a joint team vocabulary that engenders trust and respect.
  6. Engage with compassion and intent.

Genuine harmony is not when everyone agrees; it’s when we can respect our disagreements and still play in the sandbox together until we create magic together.

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