My friend Jean Tabaka recently posted what may become a seminal blog (who knows, eh?) on a process of escalating conflict she sees within the Agile community (Escalation is Killing Agile). It soon made the Twitter rounds and then ignited a storm of comments, including some that seemed to actually illustrate Jean’s point. My primary takeaway was that the one-ups-man-ship type of conflict that is prevalent within the community is very destructive.
I applaud Jean for having brought the issue up and agree with her on many of her points. At the same time, I also agree with some of those saying their conflict is necessary and fruitful, notably my friend Tobias and others. For what it’s worth, I wanted to offer my take.
First, conflict is beyond inevitable, it is essential for any relationship–such as teams–especially where people are trying to achieve something together. In my practice as a team coach, the lack of conflict is a signal to me that something is wrong. Perhaps there is not enough trust, communication patterns may have become toxic, people may simply not care about each other enough to risk disagreeing, or maybe there is an abusive managerial dynamic giving rise to an environment of fear.
Healthy conflict is the sign of a mature relationship, whether within a team, between business partners, or within a marriage. So, what makes for healthy conflict and why is it so important?
Let’s first examine why it’s important. Based on extensive research conducted at the University of Washington by renowned relationship expert Dr. John Gottman, positivity in relationships is the key to long term sustainability and happiness. His observation of relationships that last over time is that the ratio of positive to negative behavioral “transactions” needs to be about 5 to 1. He describes it like a bank account, where you make deposits in positive interactions and you make withdrawals with destructive interactions.
Gottman’s research led him to document a taxonomy of the most destructive types of negative interactions. They are:
Briefly, by Criticism Gottman does not mean giving direct feedback on someone’s behavior, but rather a form of blaming where the person’s character is impugned. For instance, a tester says in a retrospective, “development just doesn’t care about quality with all the bugs they are allowing to get to us.” Not surprisingly, such Criticism can give rise to Defensiveness. A developer in the same retrospective responds, “we can’t help it, we’re under a lot of time pressure to finish all the stories.” The manager chimes in “can’t you people figure anything out! I’m sick of having to help you deal with your kindergarten name-calling. I should probably just work on getting a whole new team. Hope your resumes are up to date.” At this point, Contempt has shown up, the most dangerous of the four toxic communication styles. Meanwhile, the team sits there as the manager rants, not reacting, pretending not to even hear him. This last style Gottman calls Stonewalling.
The interconnection of these four communication patterns is clear: Criticism often leads to Defensiveness which can lead to an increase in Criticism and, eventually, to Contempt. Lots of Contempt can result in closing down or Stonewalling.
Back to Jean’s post. I believe at least part of what she is identifying is the presence of these toxic styles within the Agile community. Certainly, a fair proportion of blog posts and email list exchanges could not be described as positive interactions, and I have not infrequently felt the parties were demonstrating contempt for each other’s opinions. The cumulative affect of this can create a culture of negativity, not positivity (remember how important that is for good relationships?). But is this negativity only a problem for the “thin skinned”?
In Gottman’s research, there was an extensive physiological component, including blood tests and biofeedback monitoring during and after arguments. As Gottman accumulated evidence about this, particularly the toxic physical affects of enduring someone else’s contempt, he made a change in the research. Gottman concluded that so much physical and emotional harm was caused during an argument involving contempt, that he decided to stop the research whenever such arguments occurred in order to act in an ethical way.
Now, back to Tobias. When some people have a “conflict,” they really do enjoy it, while respecting and potentially even having fun with their “adversary.” If team members can come from the place of curiosity, respect, playfulness and real appreciation when they debate various team issues, suddenly it does not have a negative impact at all. In fact, if taken with the right attitude, it may lead to being able to celebrate the diversity of views and perspectives inherent in relationship.
Here’s the rub: the difference between an argument that feels contemptuous and a debate that is stimulating is in the experience of the behholder, so to speak. You can only know how the other person experiences what is happening by asking them.
I would be interested in any thoughts you all have about this topic.