Why Thriving Teams Need Conflict

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It may seem counter-intuitive, but some of the highest performing teams are ones that have regular conflict. Not disrespectful throwing-ones-toys-out-of-the-cot style conflict, but positive, productive conflict.

Workplaces that create a safe, high-trust environment that encourages candour, will have more potential for open, honest discussions, which lead to better outcomes.

This is exactly the culture leaders cultivate at Pixar, which underpins their success.

Pixar’s President, Ed Catmull, instituted a unique process called a BrainTrust as a way to continually assess and improve every part of a movie before it’s released. BrainTrusts happen regularly throughout a film’s development, bringing together the film’s director with a group of other experienced directors and producers, who are invited to openly critique the movie’s footage to date.

For the BrainTrust to work effectively candour is required. People need to share honestly about which parts felt flat, which characters seemed unbelievable and which storylines were confusing. 

BrainTrusts can be harsh. They dissect every part of a film, moment by moment. Open feedback is not just welcomed, it’s required. Contrary to what happens in most meetings where people hold back from fear of being embarrassed or embarrassing others, participants are encouraged to point out every flaw they see. 

To create a safe and honest environment, they follow certain rules. Feedback is always constructive, delivered with empathy, focused on the project not the person and offered as a suggestion, not a command. 

BrainTrusts are Pixar’s way of constantly improving things iteration by iteration, detail by detail. Catmull says, “The BrainTrust is the most important thing we do by far.” He says, “All our movies suck at first. The BrainTrust is where we figure out why they suck, and it’s also where they start to not suck.”

A key rule of BrainTrusts is that the team is not allowed to suggest solutions, only to highlight problems. This allows directors to focus on hearing the feedback without getting defensive as it’s the key reason they are there. Catmull instructs his team to focus on candour above all else during BrainTrusts. He often sits in on them, not to add his own comments, but to oversee the process.

An example of how effective his process was came in 2006, when Disney bought Pixar.  Disney had been struggling with unsuccessful films for years. Ed Catmull and chief creative officer John Lasseter decided to keep the Disney Animation studio completely separate from Pixar. They also introduced the BrainTrust process to Disney’s staff, who he described as failing and demoralised. 

Once they rebuilt trust and Disney’s staff engaged with the BrainTrust approach, they went on to produce highly successful films such as Tangled, Wreck It Ralph and Frozen (the highest grossing animated film of its time). Catmull notes that interestingly, it was largely the same people who were there when Disney was failing. Those same people were able to create huge successes. He simply built a level of trust and taught them a way to communicate with such candour that it transformed their results as a group.

Patrick Lencioni in his book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, describes the five most common challenges teams face (and how to solve them.)

It all starts with building trust, as the foundational dysfunction is an absence of trust. 

Without trust, nothing else works. In the absence of trust, you can’t have open, honest discussions where you can to respectfully disagree with colleagues and hear everyone’s honest opinion. A lack of trust holds people back from sharing what they’re thinking out of fear that they might offend someone or be ostracised.

Conversely, in a high psychological safety (high trust) environment, everyone knows it’s ok to have a different perspective. Opposing points of view are welcomed and encouraged.

If I come to the meeting and say, “I think we should do ‘xyz’”, my colleagues can challenge me and say, “Lauren, I don’t think you’ve taken this into consideration, I feel we should be looking at ‘abc’”. 

Regardless of the final outcome, all parties will feel heard and understood if they’ve been able to air their views. When that doesn’t occur there is a lack of commitment to goals (because they weren’t fully discussed and agreed on.) This flows onto a lack of accountability and ultimately poor results. 

As you can see, everything starts with trust.

The Five Dysfunctions of a Team:

  1. Absence of Trust
  2. Fear of Conflict
  3. Lack of Commitment
  4. Avoidance of Accountability
  5. Inattention to Results

In contrast, when you build a high-trust environment where people feel comfortable to disagree with one another and have constructive conversations, you get better teamwork and better results. 

The key therefore is first building and maintaining trust and having high respect for one another in the way you communicate.

Leaders need to foster this by setting the ground rules. 

As a leader you can create a ‘psychological safety net’ that helps staff feel safe to share new ideas, question things, experiment, and speak up for things they feel are important. In teams with high psychological safety, people feel confident that no one will punish or embarrass anyone for admitting a mistake, asking a question or offering a different opinion.

This has two significant benefits. One, it leads to a plethora of small and large innovations, improvements and new ideas. Plus, it ensures staff feel included, heard and valued. 

Rather than perpetuating a culture of ‘false-harmony’, share this concept with your team and encourage them to speak up and (respectfully) share their mind. 

Be courageous and choose to play the role that Ed Catmull plays, facilitating the process and ensuring open discourse. Watch the benefits that flow.

Let me know your thoughts below.

And if you’d like support with your leadership practise feel free to download a copy of my eBook 5 Keys to a Positive, Energised, High-Performance Culture here

Lauren Parsons is an award-winning Wellbeing Specialist who helps leaders boost both staff wellbeing and productivity. With over 20 years’ experience in the health and wellbeing profession, she is a sought-after speaker, coach and consultant.

TEDx speaker, author of real food less fuss, founder of the Snack on Exercise movement and host of the Thrive TV Show and certified Emotional Culture Deck practitioner.

Based in the Manawatu, she travels regularly and specialises in helping organisations create a high-energy, peak-performance team culture, where people thrive. Get your complimentary copy of Lauren’s ebook “5 Keys to a Positive, Energised, High-Performance Culture” here.

Thanks for reading this article, I appreciate your time.

To find out more about how I help individuals and organisations thrive, feel free to check out the Workplace Wellbeing or Helping You Thrive pages.

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