The aim of many leaders is to have a cohesive team. By that they mean a team that has similar values, is on the same page in terms of culture and goals and has little conflict. While cohesion is a worthwhile goal, having it as an over-arching focus can mean that valuable assets can be lost. This is because we can’t see the trees for the wood, we confuse unity and uniformity and we do not recognise the need for healthy conflict.
See both the trees and the woods
The old saying, “You can’t see the wood for the trees” infers that focussing on details clouds the ability to see the big picture. However, the inverse can apply in teams – you can’t see the trees for the wood – where the talents and input of the individual are subsumed by the needs and goals of the group. It is important to strive for cohesion in teams, because cohesive teams are incredibly productive. However, it is equally of value to discover how individual talents and goals can be brought to the table to benefit both the individual and the group.
A couple I once worked with studied for and gained their PhDs. On completion, they applied for positions within the organisation where they could make use of their education. On being turned down time and again, the couple left the organisation and took their skills elsewhere. For whatever reason, the skills of these two ‘trees’ were not valued, and so the ‘wood’ lost their expertise. Helping team members develop their skills and reach their goals benefits both the individuals and the team as a whole.
Uniformity is not unity
In a push for cohesion, a team or corporation can value unity but unconsciously promote uniformity. An organisation may say that it needs fresh blood and new ideas. However, it often doesn’t take long before that “new blood” is expected to conform. While alternate viewpoints and external input are outwardly touted as important, uniformity is what is deemed most desirable. However, uniformity does not mean unity, as those who are compelled to conform feel under-valued and overlooked. Team members who feel this way do not bring their best to the table, no matter how good their intentions. While unity and cohesion may be the aim, beware that uniformity is not unconsciously championed.
Conflict is needed for growth.
However, the most important reason why aiming for cohesion can be the wrong thing for your team is that healthy conflict is essential for growth. Conflict is difficult. Handling conflict is uncomfortable. Avoiding conflict by seeking cohesion can seem like the best way to be productive. Conflict occurs when people don’t see things the same way – conflict of outlook, goals, mindset, values. However, conflict is a given in any team, in any relationship. For the sake of outward cohesion, team members may not overtly or actively share their own goals or seek to develop individual skills. However, pursuing personal goals and agendas is often done covertly and passively, resulting in tension and unacknowledged and unresolved conflict.
Being courageous enough to bring conflict into an open arena isn’t easy. However, a team that understands that healthy conflict allows differences to be aired and examined also recognises that at the end of the conflict process lie new ideas and ways of achieving team and personal goals. Handling conflict well and in a healthy manner are the marks of a mature person and a mature team. And when a new team member is onboarded, part of their induction can be the knowledge that conflict is inevitable and conflict resolution does not mean conflict avoidance.
Cohesion is a great goal for any team but…
But if the ‘trees’ get lost in the ‘woods’ then both the team and individuals lose out. If uniformity is prized then real unity is lost. When a team and its leadership don’t recognise the value of healthy conflict then true cohesion is impossible. True cohesion can occur when ways are found to use the strengths of all team members and utilise their unique viewpoints, even if that means working through conflict. What ways have you found that healthy conflict has grown the cohesion in your team?