Conflict in Brainstorming

Why do people argue?

A few years ago, I heard someone give an answer to this age-old question; and it’s an answer that I’ll never forget. “People argue,” she said, “because they CARE. They care so passionately, they’re willing to argue to get their point across, because they want you to understand why they feel the way they do.”

Those pivotal words “people argue because they care” made me re-think my whole attitude about arguments, especially when they occur during brainstorming sessions in the workplace.


The Heart of the Matter

Let’s analyze this a step further: Why do people care so much? And what exactly is it that they care so much about?

The easy answer is that they care passionately about an idea or solution because they believe in it. But if you look deeper into the matter, the real answer lies in the fact that every one of us wants to be liked, respected and listened to as a fellow colleague.

According to recent global statistics reported by Forbes, a whopping 79 percent of employees leave their jobs because they don’t feel appreciated by their colleagues and managers. This desire to be appreciated motivates much of our workplace behavior — and, conversely, is also the very thing that often fuels the most strenuous arguments during brainstorming sessions.

In the end, there’s one culprit that lies at the heart of the matter: our emotions. Our emotions cause us to cling passionately to our beliefs, whether they’re world-view ideologies or day-to-day workplace solutions. Likewise, our emotions also cause us to want to be liked and respected at our jobs. Our emotions also fuel our behavior — that’s why we use the expression “emotions ran high” to depict people arguing.

Unfortunately, while these emotions may stem from a positive source — caring about the company, wanting to be liked — they often end up clouding judgement, and causing an otherwise intelligent employee to not only lose focus, but also block out any other possible ideations that are presented.

Emotions are at the root of workplace conflict, but I’m not saying that this is always a bad thing. Emotions run high because people care — you see how it all comes back around to people caring? And caring about something is always a good, positive thing, even when it sometimes provokes conflicting viewpoints.

The trick is to control emotions so that the conflict doesn’t become too personal on either side. And that’s when you, as a leader, need to step in and monitor the discussion, as I’ll explain below.


From Conflict to Cooperation

So, here’s the big question: How do you channel all this passion and caring from your team into a single, unified operational strategy for your company?

It all starts with mutual respect: Respecting your employees enough to value their opinions, while also demanding similar respect from them, for yourself and for the other members of the team.

Toward this end, here are several steps that will help you harness that positive energy and passion from your team and steer it from conflict to cooperation.

  1. Foster an environment that encourages honesty and healthy, constructive debate. This means that everyone should know that his/her opinion and input is not only welcome, it’s also valued. Sounds easy, doesn’t it? But if you’ve got 20 people in a room, you’re going to have 20 different definitions of the phrase “constructive debate.” That leads us to the next step:
  2. Respect is key. Everyone needs to respect each other’s opinions, period. And this respect should be shown in tone of voice, as well as in words that are chosen. Speaking of words, as team leader you should collect your own private arsenal of positive, motivational words and phrases that you can use to help keep conversations positive, respectful and on the right track.
  3. Every team member should have an equal voice, and an equal opportunity to voice his/her opinion. However, people respond to work stress differently; and sometimes you’ll have team members who are more highly-strung or take things more personally. When tempers flare with these individuals, the best thing you can do is talk to them privately and try to help them cultivate a mindset of collaboration rather than conflict.
  4. Know when to step in. From the very beginning, you need to monitor the conversation, whether it’s a group brainstorming session or a one-on-one discussion between two employees. When emotions start to run high, that’s when you need to intercede and direct the conversation so that it remains positive, collaborative and, above all, respectful.
  5. Realize that conflict is inevitable; and that the way you handle it can mean the difference between failure and success. In other words, you can’t expect conflict to be a one-off occasional event. If you’ve got a team of passionate, caring employees (and if you don’t, you need to rethink your hiring strategies), you’re going to have conflict. 

Here’s where it’s time once again to bring in a football game metaphor. You’ve got a team with incredible talent, and it’s your job as coach to bring them all in line and help them learn how to work together. If they don’t, the team will lose. In your business, you’ve got a team of talented, caring individuals, all with different ideas. It’s your job, as their leader, to harness their individual talents and creative energies, as well as their ideas and solutions, and channel everything into a single, unified winning game plan for your business.

Here are two more points to take away:

  • Your goal is to maintain a brainstorming mindset, not a conflict mindset.
  • Conversations are more productive than conflict.

In the end, your team’s passion and caring should fuel creativity rather than conflict. As a team leader, it’s your job to take the reins and steer the conversation away from bumpy roads and into a single, clear path toward success.