Why our brains are wired to create team conflict

Conflict is natural. In fact, for high-performance teams, conflict is required. That’s because a team with conflict is debating issues, exploring multiple points of view, and developing the best solutions through critical analysis. That being said, the conflict needs to be constructive and focused on problems and tasks, not on assigning blame to individuals. High-performance teams are “hard on issues and soft on people,”as the saying goes. Differentiating between constructive and destructive conflict, and favoring the former, is a critical skill that a team needs to develop in order to deliver high-quality results.

Teams that avoid destructive conflict avoid what psychologists call the “Fundamental Attribution Error.” Coined by Edward E. Jones and Victor Harris in the late 1960’s, we have all been guilty of it because we’re wired to be.  It’s defined as the tendency of all humans to attribute our own shortcomings to extrinsic forces while at the same time attributing shortcomings of others to theirintrinsic characteristics. As an example, we think that we were late for the meeting because the subway was delayed (an external force), but think that Sarah wasn’t on time because she didn’t leave early enough (an internal characteristic).

The more that team members are aware of the Fundamental Attribution Error and correct it, the more likely it is that they will stay in a constructive dialogue and find effective solutions to problems as teams. This is hard work and takes skill and practice. Great teams continually work on getting better about not falling victim to the Fundamental Attribution Error. As a result, they focus more on delivering results and less on figuring out who is to blame for their failures.

Here is how I coach teams to stay mindful of your thinking, and some practices that you can develop to keep yourself and your team in the positive space of constructive conflict.

Be aware of your tendency to excuse your own behavior

Listen to your internal and external dialogue for signs that you’re assigning external factors for your performance and results. It’s called “but for” thinking: I would have been on time, but for the traffic on the highway. I would have made the budget, but for the increase in prices. Blaming results on others’ behaviors and actions should also be avoided: I would have made the sale but for Harry delivering the prototype too late. Be especially careful of assigning fault to other people’s motivations and intents: I would have passed the quality assurance testbut for Jorge being careless with his testing. This kind of thinking will breed frustration and resentment. Instead, focus on factors that you can control and that you can change, and adapt your behavior and approach accordingly.

Consider that others tend to assign fault to external factors

Just as you may tend to find external causes for your outcomes, understand that other people will do the same. Don’t be surprised or assign fault when other people blame the situation or others for their own outcomes. Avoiding these triggers and refocusing discussions on constructive dialogue will help the team stay positive. When someone deflects accountability, acknowledge the impact, then brainstorm ways within their control that the issue can be addressed.

Don’t  take the bait when someone questions your intent

It’s natural to get defensive and to blame other people when we’re feeling stressed. Be understanding when other people fall into this trap and appreciate that they are struggling with the situation. Take a breath, let it pass, and refocus on addressing issues collaboratively. If it continues, call out the situation and the dialogue that is not productive and choose to disengage if you must. Counter-attacking is never productive. Enlisting the help of other team members or bringing in third parties to mediate can help get the conversation back on track and avoid creating deeper scars.

Always assume positive intent

It’s a helpful practice to assume that regardless of people’s behaviors and actions, they are doing the best they can and are acting from a position of positive intent. While it’s not always easy, it keeps you in a productive state and helps you avoid engaging in destructive conflict. Assuming that someone has good intentions can help you get through even the toughest discussions.

A good corollary to this maxim is to keep yourself in a state of curiosity. If you assume positive intent and stay curious, you naturally focus on asking questions and exploring the other person’s situation and perspective. You will not only discover issues that can be addressed, but you will foster appreciation and reduce defensiveness in the other person. An added bonus is that they will likely become more empathic to your position and point of view.

High-performance teams know that people aren’t perfect and we can all fall into the trap of excusing ourselves and blaming others from time to time. They work hard at catching themselves and others in this destructive pattern, and they work to shift conversations back to issues and collaboration. Great teams don’t avoid conflict and they are just as prone to fall into destructive conflict as other teams. It’s human nature. However, they have the skill and training to catch themselves quickly and refocus faster than lower performing teams.

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Bruce Eckfeldt is highly-focused, results-based performance coach.  Previously an entrepreneur and a former Inc 500 CEO he now focuses on advising startups and high-growth companies on leadership and management. He is a long-time member of the New York City Chapter of the Entrepreneurs’ Organization and a mentor for the EO Accelerators, ERA, and SBS programs. You can reach him atbruce@eckfeldt.com or visit his website at http://www.eckfeldt.com.