This is a transcript of episode 302 of the Troubleshooting Agile podcast with Jeffrey Fredrick, Douglas Squirrel.

An underperforming tech team is missing something, but what?

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Productive Conflict is Not Personal

Listen to this section at 00:14

Squirrel: Welcome back to Troubleshooting Agile. Hi there Jeffrey.

Jeffrey: Hi, Squirrel.

Squirrel: So I have the feeling we’re nearly done with something, but you might have to remind me what it is. We’re at the end of what?

Jeffrey: We’re at the end of a four part series, which was about how to look at diagnostics of your team. You pointed out that we’re in kind of this sprint period of the year between now and the end of the year, where there’s a lot we can get done, and that often surfaces that maybe things aren’t going the way we would hope. And so we thought, let’s share this checklist. And so far we’ve gone two of the three items in the checklist, which is one, you know, how do we build alignment. Do we have alignment? If not, what do we do. Second is do we have everyone contributing to the effort? Is do we have a high engagement? And if not, what do we do?

Jeffrey: And now we’re at our last one, which is do we have constructive conflict? That is, do people have ‘felt permission for candor’. And so we’re going to dive into that about what you do if you think you aren’t having the constructive conflict you would like. And I will say for this, there’s a diagnostic that we can share, a very concrete one. I really like this quadrant, a classic sort of consultant quadrant kind of thing, from an article in Stratechery that was actually about the uncanny valley of a functional organization where it’s looking at, do we have good communication? And one of the things it says is that, you know, true collaboration comes when we have two things.

Squirrel: By the way, if listeners want to follow along with the picture, check out the show notes. You can find the original article. Keep going.

Jeffrey: That’s right. So you’re going to say like, first of all, the question is, do we have mutual trust and respect? And that can be either high or low. And we want high trust and respect. And then do we have high or low willingness and freedom to disagree. And what we want is to be high on both of those elements. And if you’re looking saying, “no, we’re not having constructive conflict, then we should figure out what to do by looking at these two dimensions.”

Jeffrey: Let’s actually let’s take a moment here. What do we mean by constructive conflict? You and I have used this phrase for literally years now, but I think it’s something that people who, if they haven’t come across it before, it’s not at all obvious what it means. Isn’t conflict bad?

Squirrel: Yeah. Because I often have people say, “yeah, we get on really well. We never argue. We see things the same way all the time, and we collaborate really effectively because we never disagree.” And I say, “well, congratulations on diagnosing a very significant problem in your organization.” Because the mark of a good interaction, the mark of a good collaboration is having conflict that is not personal. So the thing we all think of as conflict is this sort of bits. And you see it so often on movies and television and so on, because it makes for great drama.

Squirrel: The climbing the greasy pole, pushing down the other person, building an empire, capturing territory, and doing so at the expense of the other person, and having a conflict over fundamentally different approaches to the same problem. And the goal is to win. And that’s unproductive conflict. That’s what is always concerning people. And they say, “well, great, I don’t have any of that, therefore I’m doing well,” and that’s not the case. So what you want is for people who are fundamentally aligned and engaged to look at our last two episodes, for those that when they are aligned and engaged and they are finding useful ways to disagree, that move the situation forward, that solve the problem, that move us.

Squirrel: As we talked about last time, the head on the Toyota Kata, I think that was in alignment, actually. So a couple of episodes ago, when you’re looking at a problem and everyone sees it the same way, you aren’t unlocking the creativity that allows and the different perspectives and the diversity of ideas that gives you success in addressing that problem, you’re just all looking through the same lens in lockstep, and you’re going to miss important things.

Squirrel: Whereas the signal that you are finding important issues and addressing them is a kind of conflict that is useful and productive, that has good results without making anyone feel that they are unimportant, or that they should shut up and stay in the corner, but rather that their opinion is valued. And one of our challenges is there’s there’s so few examples of that to look at that listeners may not be familiar with it.

Squirrel: They may not have be able to point to an experience in their lives where that kind of conflict has happened, but I can assure you that it does, and it’s tremendously useful. And if you think about it for a while, I bet you can think of some environment, perhaps a class in school, perhaps a really interesting colleague or mentor or boss with whom you had this kind of idea generating conflict, where each of you saw something in a very different way, and you were able to come to some synthesis of the- and come to a better result than either of you would have together.

Jeffrey: Yeah. And that’s the key idea here, which is that we’re looking to get by the constructive conflict. That’s the constructive part is we end up at a better place. The conflict comes from just the reality of different people with different experiences. This is why when we talk about the value of diverse teams is that different people have different experiences, different points of view, and so they see things differently. They will come up with different ideas. However, in a lot of environments we never get the value of that diversity. And because we we don’t have that constructive conflict and in either if we go back to our, our diagram, either people have a low willingness and freedom to disagree or they have low trust and respect.

Prerequisites for Productive Conflict

Listen to this section at 06:34

Jeffrey: Let’s talk about those two things separately by willingness and freedom to disagree. In my experience, there’s there’s two elements here. The freedom part often goes back to kind of structural elements that we talked about last time. We talked about engagement and having people have meeting formats, things that are set up and structured so that people can can actually speak in a, in a kind of standard meeting, you know, the Dilbert-esque type meeting you often have, people don’t have the opportunity to speak in a way that’s meaningful. You know, if you have the the Hippo decision protocol, you know that the Hippo model?

Squirrel: Highest paid person in the room?

Jeffrey: Yeah, highest paid person’s opinion. Then suddenly, if people know that that’s what’s going to happen, you’re not going to get- people will feel like they don’t have the freedom to speak. Well, the boss has already said what we’re going to do, so there’s there’s no point. And this is, again, kind of the idea where understanding the structure you have, and changing, that can be one of the things that is a key to unlocking people’s constructive conflict.

Jeffrey: So how do you actually get that out? Now also there’s the that’s people’s freedom to disagree. But there’s also the willingness. And now we get into psychological safety. People are not going to be willing to speak up and share their points of view if they don’t feel they’re going to be heard. And that’s, you know, again, we talked about difficult conversations, hearing from people what’s inhibiting them. And this is something you can learn, if you’re able to have those conversations about why they aren’t bringing their differences of opinion up in group settings.

Squirrel: And just underline, again, just changing the structure isn’t enough. So if you create the environment in which people could speak up, have a productive disagreement, and come up with a better solution, that doesn’t mean they will.

Jeffrey: Yes. That’s right. So the engagement element here, there’s definitely the constructive conflict and the engagement. There’s a strong connection between them. And I think getting across to people that you value what they have to say. This is something that can take time and people are going to be looking for evidence from you that you actually mean it. So one thing that I’ve seen bosses undermine people’s willingness to disagree is to at the first, the first budding of that disagreement, to shut it down rather than rather than nurturing it. This is very much a case where you want to feed that which you’d see grow, which is a phrase I got from Elizabeth Hendrickson. You start to see someone who’s starting to disagree with you or to have some different views coming up, learning how to nurture that and have people rewarded for having brought up the differences is something that’s really important.

Squirrel: And it’s important to do that if you can publicly, because then others can see that this is valued and important. So if you’re in a meeting or in a slack channel or something like that, and, and you observe the seeds of this type of productive conflict, or you see someone having a productive conflict instead of doing what might be your instinct to do, which is say, “oh my God! Conflict! Stop! Wait, we don’t want to have conflict. Let’s all agree. Let’s be let’s be a peacemaker here. And so we don’t have a disagreement.” You say, “this sounds like a very productive conflict. Let’s go on with this for a bit. We won’t go on forever, but I really want to hear from others on this point. Does anybody agree with Bob and disagree with me?”

Jeffrey: Yep. That’s right. And and also I think that’s a great example. You’re essentially you’re going to need to teach people about constructive conflict, why it’s important and why you want it. So yeah rewarding people who do that that’s essential. Now if we look at the diagnostic, if this is the lack of willingness and freedom to disagree, that leads us to groupthink. That’s probably the most common problem that I see.

Destructive Conflict

Listen to this section at 10:40

Jeffrey: But some of the most difficult problems come in the other negative quadrant, which is when we have low trust and respect. Is this something you’ve come across? Where you just get people who just feel like, “oh, that person’s a bozo. We, you know, they look, they do all these silly, stupid things, they have these bad ideas.” And just, rather than having a lack of conflict, you now actually have that destructive conflict.

Squirrel: Yeah. Typically have this view between engineering and sales. Those lazy engineers never get the things done. The clients need those crazy sales people keep selling stuff we don’t need or we don’t support. So they each have the opinion that the other one is out to lunch.

Jeffrey: Now, I think this is definitely solvable. And these are things that we’ve actually talked about quite a bit in past episodes. So we’re not going to get too deep in here. But I would talk about the work that needs to be done in this environment. I would break it into two pieces. which is, one is empathy, and second is particular skills that require practice. So for empathy and this the people who are in destructive conflict might include you then.

Squirrel: Almost certainly do include you. Keep going.

Jeffrey: That’s right. So one thing I find that’s very helpful in empathy and building empathy for others is to start with empathy for self. And this is something we talked about in the past was a tool called The Line, which I think you said was the simplest, was the best consultant tool ever, just a horizontal line in a board and we won’t get too far into it. But the question you ask yourself is, am I above the line or below the line? And know that if you find yourself below the line, it’s going to be difficult for you to move forward constructively? So that’s the that’s the first place to start.

Jeffrey: Where am I? Find myself. In terms of building empathy for others? If we if we have ourselves, we manage to get ourselves above the line. Then there’s tools that we’ve talked about in the past. Nonviolent communication has these wonderful tools around feelings and needs inventory. So understanding what feelings other people might be experiencing, what needs might be behind it. And then David Burns, we’ve talked about his five secrets of effective communication. And he’s got a great interpersonal worksheet where you basically say, “well, what do I what am I experiencing? What do I imagine the other person is experiencing?” So these are very much exercises for building empathy.

Jeffrey: Once we get past the empathy stage, there’s particular conversational skills to actually then to have constructive conversations that build trust and respect. And the two that come to mind for me, one of your favorite things, which is the the LEAP method from Xavier Amador. Can we can we use that empathy that we have internally? Can we externalize it? So can we show active listening and demonstrate our empathy? That’s the ‘L’ and ‘E’ from LEAP.

Jeffrey: And this is also we’ve talked about this in terms of the ‘that’s right’ moment from Never Split the Difference where you explain to person their point of view and you know, you’ve gotten it right when they tell you “that’s right,” not “your right,” that might be them just trying to get you to shut up. But “that’s right.” You understand them. And the final set of skills to point out is one that was kind of foundational. I think for us, having this whole podcast goes back to the eight behaviors. This is from The Eight Behaviors of Smarter Teams. This is something we’ve talked about, I think, from the very beginning of the podcast.

Squirrel: Roger Schwartz is the guy.

Jeffrey: Yeah. And this idea of that there are certain behaviors that show up when you have good constructive conflict. And it’s things like, you know, sharing reasoning and intent, testing your assumptions and inferences. So there’s a whole set of skills around that and a whole set of episodes we’ve done on that. The one thing I’d point out here is that this order is deliberate, because these skills only work if you’ve started with empathy.

Jeffrey: You need to meet people’s empathetic needs first before you can then move on to applying these skills from Roger Schwartz, which actually go back to Chris Argyris. And it was Chris Argyris who was the one who taught me, you have to meet people’s empathetic needs first. So this is the place where I take clients who I’m working with, when they’re having problems with low trust and respect on their teams. These are the skills that I look for them to build, first about empathy and then these sort of collaboration skills of mutual learning behavior.

Squirrel: There we go. Well, these methods are going by pretty quick. And we’ve listed a lot of them. And of course there’ll be links to those we manage to catch ourselves. We’ve concluded this series, but we haven’t concluded Troubleshooting Agile because there’s going to be another episode next week, and we’d love to see you next Wednesday on our next episode. Thanks, Jeffrey.

Jeffrey: Thanks, Squirrel.