Understanding the Power of Positive Disharmony in Teams

Improving the performance of workplace teams is top of mind for most employers these days. Team leadership topped all priorities in Brandon Hall Group’s leadership development benchmarking study this summer. A whopping 94% of respondents said team leadership is critical.

It’s a good sign most organizations are focused on teams because leading them and collaborating effectively within them is complex. High-performing teams are elusive and yet absolutely essential to future business success. Our research shows that at least half of all work is achieved through teams in 77% of organizations. 

However, only 11% of organizations believe their team members understand their roles, trust each other, and leverage governance and technology to collaborate effectively and reach team and business goals.

Andy Atkins of the global consulting firm BTS has a world of experience in this space and does a great job helping organizations understand the nuances of high-performing teams. In his article, The Upside of Positive Disharmony, for Rotman Management magazine, Atkins discusses the importance of surfacing contrasting views and fostering spirited debate among team members.

“A high-performing team is one that sets free the collective genius of its members to create something extraordinary together — and that genius consists of the unique contributions that each team member can bring to the mix,” said Atkins, VP and Leader of the Executive and Team Performance Center of Expertise for BTS. “Sometimes the mixing of individual contributions can feel messy, but that discomfort is necessary for a team to experience positive disharmony. Contrasting views and spirited debate make a team stronger, even while discord is part of the experience.”

In BTS’ research drawing from hundreds of team assessment responses, Atkins said, four factors that distinguish effective teams emerged:

  • Understanding and demonstrating awareness of the needs and interests of all the team’s stakeholders.
  • Making decisions based on the best interests of the enterprise rather than solely on the interests of the team.
  • The presence of “psychological safety,” which includes the qualities of commitment, trust and belonging. 
  • The ability of team members to engage in constructive conflict and navigate differences, which includes qualities like candor, courage and decision-making prowess.

The first three factors must be present for the power of constructive conflict to take hold. All too often, Atkins believes, teams stifle constructive disharmony to preserve the appearance of harmony. 

Atkins and his colleagues at BTS have the benefit of working with a wide variety of teams for many global clients. He has seen first-hand that “absent constructive conflict, teams fall prey to serious problems.“

Here are some recommendations on ways to build highly effective teams, gleaned from Atkins’s first-hand experience.

  • Teach your team how to swim upstream. The spark of innovation can only happen when differing ideas come together to create friction. Intentionally seeking out different viewpoints to contrast with the status quo accelerates that process.
  • Start by designating a “devil’s advocate.” Before resigning your team to an absence of contrasting viewpoints, consider proactively designating a “devil’s advocate” who can give voice to opposing and diverse viewpoints — either their own or those solicited from others on the team. This ensures ideas get challenged and the team avoids groupthink. It’s advisable to make the devil’s advocate role a rotating responsibility so everyone gets practice and no one gets the reputation of being the resident contrarian.
  • Practice team introspection. It’s important to discover whether team members believe they have the quality or quantity of information they need to make good decisions. It’s also important for these team members to consider how they might be contributing to the problem. Discuss how team members may be discouraging others from sharing what they know in a timely or useful manner. Better yet, obtain individual, anonymous and confidential 360-degree feedback about how receptive team members are to tough news or why some people might be reluctant to say what’s really going on.

“In the end,” Atkins said, “teams will get better at achieving positive disharmony in the same way as that old punchline to the question about how to get the opportunity to perform at Carnegie Hall: practice, practice, practice.”

-Claude Werder, Senior VP and Principal HCM Analyst, Brandon Hall Group

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