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16 Apr. 2013 | Comments (0)

Over the last couple of years, Ukraine’s parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, has undergone heated sessions that have literally turned into all-out brawls – to the delight of the local media. As president of a fast-growing firm, a human resource leader, and former middle linebacker, I've struggled to find the healthy part of conflict involving the professional work teams I’ve been on. Upon reflection, I think I suffered from battlefield instinct – where challenges and debate can lead to an “amygdala hijacking,” and a scene like the one Ukraine’s parliament devolved into recently.

We tend to think of conflict as bad, even something to be avoided. Yet, high performing executive teams feed on it. How?

First, there’s a big difference between functional conflict and dysfunctional conflict. Let’s start with the latter. You don’t have to dwell long to understand that dysfunctional conflict is bad. It detracts from performance, creates all kinds of destructive behaviors, and manifests in ills that bubble beneath the surface, much like the unstable earth that causes sink holes. Executive teams with chronic dysfunctional conflict do just that - they sink out of sight.

You can spot dysfunctional conflict on teams easily:

  • Members seeking first to be understood (the opposite of Covey’s Habit #5),
  • Dismissive comments or body language from the leader,
  • An atmosphere of palpable fear,
  • Hostility, derision, or passive aggressive behavior; and even worse
  • Indifference and apathy

Recognize any of these?

Healthy or functional conflict begins with fundamental team elements like respect, shared values, a competent leader, and social emotional intelligence (as Daniel Goleman calls it) demonstrated among group members and also, primarily, by the leader. Signs of healthy conflict are:

  • Enthusiastic debate often infused with tension-breaking laughter;
  • Passion, unbridled and omnipresent;
  • Listening and validating BEFORE stating a counterpoint;
  • A leader who seeks out opinions from everyone, frequently; and
  • A leader who recognizes great input then assimilates it into his/her thinking

If you noticed that two of these bullet points related to functional conflict are ascribed to the leader, that’s no mistake. Leaders are the key to healthy conflict in high-performing teams. Interestingly, many executive leaders claim the problem is with their team mates. This may be true, but who is responsible for the team constituency? In the end, it’s the leader’s artfulness that strikes the balance, and the ones who do it best know it’s an ongoing, dynamic process that requires their attention, diagnostic skills, and flexible leadership style to nurture and develop fully.

In one of her recent speeches, Facebook COO, Sheryl Sandberg, acknowledged that as a leader gets higher up, there is more of a tendency for people to avoid questioning or challenging that person due to their authority. She labeled this phenomenon “CEO syndrome.”  It’s real and it’s a problem. At a large client, where a very senior business leader hired us to help develop a communication strategy to drive a critical transformational change, we started by sharing the results of our extensive survey of communication gaps within his organization. The survey showed that many individual contributors – and even some managers and directors – were reluctant to share their ideas and feared the consequences of doing so. The senior leader was enlightened: “These are the ones I need to hear from; they’re the ones who know what is working and what isn’t!”

His way of dealing with it? Just like Sandberg recommends, he now asks, “What do you believe?” first, then listens and validates that what he heard is really what the person meant.  Only when they confirm he understood clearly what they meant, will he say clearly what he believes to be true – and, he will add a healthy dose of ‘why.’

You see, the secret to healthy conflict is that there is ultimately no truth in many situations – just perspectives and opinions. People NEED to share THEIR truths so there can be healthy dialogue and conflict, particularly within highly talented executive teams.  Healthy conflict produces valuable information that leaders can really use, and team members who feel heard and respected can take the leader’s clear direction and get behind it. 

The teams of which I’ve been a part where healthy conflict was present all had the fundamental team elements of respect, shared values, a competent leader, and social emotional intelligence among the members. Turns out these elements are necessary, but not sufficient. In the very best teams I played on (the ones I will cherish because we not only won at a high rate of success, but each of us grew personally and professionally more than any other time in our career), good communication (even if it meant there was functional conflict) was also a key ingredient.

I’m so glad I was able to reflect on and realize this. At 50, I don’t think I can survive a Ukraine Parliament style conflict anymore.


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  • About the Author:David Casullo

    David  Casullo

    David Casullo is president at Bates Communications, a national consulting firm specializing in leadership communication skills and strategy. His passion is developing leaders who have the courage and …

    Full Bio | More from David Casullo


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