August 29, 2021

Team Coaching in Healthcare: Great Teams Have Great Conflict and Then Commit

Clinician Leadership | Leadership Development | Team Development

Reading Time: 3 minutes

How do you turn up performance, collaboration, and outcomes in a healthcare team? In the first installments in this series (see part 1 and part 2), we’ve discussed the traits of high-performing teams, the role of vulnerability-based trust, and how coaching differs from training.

Put simply, trust enables a team to overcome the fear of conflict. Unless team members build vulnerability-based trust with one another, they cannot — and will not — engage in constructive conflict around Ideas. The best performing teams excel in this kind of conflict. And too few teams do it well.

Most of our clients find the word “conflict” to be negative. It’s a heavy word that carries many meanings. But as it is used here, it simply refers to anything that gets in the way of clear dialogue, the give-and-take of ideas. When two people have a difference of opinion, a different worldview, a disagreement over the best course forward — that’s conflict. In that context, conflict is a normal part of everyday interpersonal relations.

Leaning into constructive conflict

Nothing ever changes without a bit of conflict. If leadership is about co-creating coordinated movement by a group of people toward a shared goal, there will be conflict in the process.

The best teams excel in constructive conflict around ideas, leaning into it easily and often.  They engage is passionate dialogue around conflicting ideas. This kind of conflict is never focused on the other person, but on the other idea. It’s a search for truth, for the best path forward together.

In team coaching, we unpack principles of effective conflict. We use an assessment that reveals each team member’s preferences for how to do it. We then help team members talk with each other about the similarities and differences of how they approach conflict. We use real-life topics of conflict they are facing for application of the principles they are learning. Everyone finds specific changes they commit to employ on the team.

In one team coaching engagement, the team truly thought they were not experiencing “conflict.” It wasn’t until a second off-site session, with individual coaching in between, that they discovered that conflict needn’t mean a fistfight; it’s simply the everyday debates and deliberations common to any team.

One of the most important things about constructive conflict is that it holds the key to whether a team is productive, or it gets stuck and spins its wheels.

Committing to decisions

Unless members of a team weigh into a debate over a decision, they cannot — and indeed will not — commit to the final decision. Everyone wants their day in court to make the case for their idea, their point of view on a decision. Only if given that opportunity can team members commit to a decision other than the one they argued for. And if they don’t take the opportunity to do so, they are stealing the potential for a better decision from their teammates.

Everyone has an obligation to the team to bring their ideas into the room and vigorously advocate for them. Moreover, in the process of the debate, the buy-in for implementation of the ultimate decision is already taking root.

Compliance vs commitment

Compliance means “I’ll do it if you check up on me.” Commitment means, “I’ll do it because I promised I would, whether you check up on me or not. Compliance is a poor substitute for commitment.

Teams that fear conflict, therefore, are characterized by:

  • Silence erroneously interpreted as agreement
  • Meetings after the meeting (e.g., “That decision is baloney…”)
  • Poor implementation of decisions

Patrick Lencioni puts it well: “When people don’t weigh into a decision, they don’t buy into it.”  Note that it’s not same as consensus. Instead, “disagree, then commit,” advises Lencioni: “When necessary, the leader must break the tie.”

In the final post of this series, we will share how great teams excel at accountability to produce great results.

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About the author

Eric P. Norwood, LFACHE, PCC

Eric P. Norwood, LFACHE, PCC is a trusted, experienced advisor to C-Suite leaders, helping them improve their performance individually and corporately. He is a catalyst for change for his clients.

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