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Why conflict between officers helps the team

In the first part of this series, Conflict resolution, being a team player, and other stupid cliches, we talked about encouraging positive conflict and building trust within a police agency. The feedback you provided was overwhelming! In part two of this article I will talk about why we love a good fight on the street but can't stand conflict in the station, how to distinguish between unproductive personal attacks and true passionate debate, and how using conflict can actually reduce the departmental politics that tend to plague our organizations and often keep us from getting real work done.

Let's face it: cops love a good fight.
Conflict is one of the many reasons we chose careers in law enforcement instead of becoming accountants, engineers, or ministers. But once we get inside the station, into a unit briefing, or even in morning roll call we become wary of conflict, debate, and disagreement. In other words, we don’t like to fight with our co-workers.

This is especially true when we’re in a group that includes personnel of different ranks. We work in a paramilitary atmosphere and it’s generally considered disrespectful to argue or disagree with our supervisors and managers. Unfortunately, many police bosses take advantage of this and create a “kill the messenger” atmosphere. Disagreement is therefore often met with contempt, ridicule, and sometimes even retaliation. As many of you told me in your comments and e-mails, it’s the bosses more than the line personnel that need to understand and appreciate a good, clean fight.

As Patrick Lencioni writes in The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, all great relationships require some form of regular conflict in order to grow. Do you and your spouse or partner agree about everything? Do your kids hang on your every word, constantly nodding in agreement? Does your best friend say “sounds good to me” every time you make a suggestion or comment? I doubt it. However, the higher we go up in the management chain, the more time and energy people spend trying to avoid the kind of passionate debate that is essential to any successful team.

So how do we get beyond our fear of conflict?

First, recognize and admit that conflict is a good thing. In fact, it’s essential to success. Alexander the Great had Parminio, his “lieutenant.” Parminio’s job was not to kiss Alexander’s rear end, it was to argue with him, provide an opposing point of view, and make him think about what he was about to do. Every police leader needs more than one Parminio, and a great leader sets the stage for healthy conflict within his or her team. Here are some take-home messages for fostering a "clean" debate between officers in your department:

There is a big difference between debating and bitching. Creating an atmosphere of unbridled debate can sometimes lead to more complaining than decision-making. Productive conflict needs to have direction and purpose, and it’s the role of the team leader or a designee to keep everyone on track. Having said that, understand that team leaders become prematurely uncomfortable with the level of discord true debate produces. This means they may stop a lively discussion before anything gets accomplished. One of the best things a team leader can do is step back and let the group work out the conflict on their own.

Passionate debate can get loud, but this does not give team members license to be mean-spirited. One of the reasons we tend to avoid debate is because we don’t want to be perceived as being “on the attack” or disrespectful. This is why egos and feelings need to be put aside for discussion to be productive. Everyone on the team needs to realize that just because someone is attacking your idea doesn’t mean they are attacking you. Ideological conflict is limited to concepts and ideas; destructive fighting and interpersonal politics are to be avoided at all costs. Team members need to understand that everyone doesn’t get to win all the time, and team leaders need to appreciate a person’s need to be heard, even if their idea or concept is ultimately discarded.

Some teams will still be reluctant to allow conflict to occur, even when given permission. Lencioni recommends appointing a “miner of conflict,” or a member of the team who extracts buried disagreements and gets them out on the table. The miner and team leader must both have the confidence and courage to call people out and force discussion and resolution, but they must do so with respect and objectivity. Also, they can't allow departmental politics to rule the debate. They also must remind people that conflict is good for the team and that they are doing the right thing. Once team members become comfortable with discord, Lencioni writes, the group will be able to solve problems more quickly and effectively. Done correctly, meetings will no longer be endless sessions of discussing the same issues over and over without productive results.

Encouraging conflict can be scary and uncomfortable, but a true leader will be able to use this method to improve the functionality of his or her team. The last commander I worked for had a knack for creating positive conflict during our roll calls. He would purposely pitch the officers a hot topic and then sit back and let them respond. Once they discovered that they could speak freely, things would usually get loud, profane, and passionate. So, how did the commander reign the officers back in? He would limit the time they were allowed to simply complain, and then he’d generally ask two things:

• What do you need me to do to fix this?
• What are you going to do to help me?

Asking the officers what he could do for them made them feel like he was listening. Asking them for help in solving the problem turned their complaints into ideas and action. He was also brutally honest with them, admitting that some things were not in his power to change. He would take a few notes, meet with his sergeants after, and would then work hard to fix what he could. Lastly, he would always follow up with the sergeants and officers, letting them know what he had accomplished and what he had not been able to affect. We didn’t always get our way, but his leadership created an atmosphere of trust and openness, and the sergeants and officers felt like we had a voice.

Leadership is so much more than having the authority to order people around. True courageous leadership is having the ability to inspire trust in your people, encouraging and allowing them to discuss, debate, and disagree with each other and with you.

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