If you want a high-performing team teach them how to fight

High-performing teams know how to fight productively, so it’s the job of team leaders to encourage vigorous, balanced debate based on facts rather than emotions.


You might be wrong. Or at least not completely right. But who’ll tell you? Marketing is a demanding job. Customer needs are rapidly changing. So is technology. So is the economy.

Never before has brilliant team work been more important – be it in departments, projects or with clients. “No one on the planet knows how to build a computer mouse,” said author Matt Ridley in a TED talk in 2010. There’s just too much to know, too much to learn. Even as a superstar, you’ll always rely heavily on others to make things happen.

Are we great team workers? We aren’t. The average team achieves only 63% of their strategic objectives, according to Harvard Business Review. Most people I know will agree: team work could be way more productive.

What to do? More off-site meetings? Maybe. Mindfulness sessions? Perhaps. External help? Could work. When thinking about effective teams, we often picture a friendly, supportive group, in a fancy startup office. Quinoa bowl meets soy skimmed latte. Sounds good. But for breakthrough results, harmony isn’t the recipe. Fighting is. Under one condition: the fight has to be constructive.

Why fighting? The answer is pretty straightforward. Both innovation and excellence need one ingredient: the best ideas. And how do you make ideas better? By challenging them. By getting feedback from others. By allowing others to tear your ideas apart (and then put them back together). For excellence, constructive conflict is key.

For example, I recently developed new research on brave leadership with The Marketing Society and Kantar. I spent weeks ploughing through studies and articles to build a brave leadership model and a questionnaire. I was confident it was damn good. But when I sent it to 20 people for feedback, I got over 100 suggestions for improvement. It was humbling – but powerful.

For breakthrough results, harmony isn’t the recipe. Fighting is. Under one condition: the fight has to be constructive.

I’ve just spent a paragraph telling you no news – you already knew that team input is good. But the reality is most team leaders struggle to build effective teams. Some leaders don’t involve all team members, some want too much harmony and some believe they know the answers anyway.

High-performing teams know how to fight – in a good way. That’s the powerful conclusion of Stanford researcher Kathleen Eisenhardt and her team, after studying high-performing executive teams. Their key insight: great team leaders know how to turn conflict into performance.

Let’s look at the key ingredients for a constructive team fight. If you can, apply them within your team today.

Why do we exist? If your team gives varying answers to this question, you’re in for trouble. Do the blank-sheet test. Ask everybody in the team to write down, in confidence, the shared team goals.

When I do this, 95% of the time the answers are not aligned. It’s not due to bad intention. It’s that people get busy, interpret, forget. You can’t really have a constructive fight if the knowledge of what you are fighting for is fuzzy. Do the blank-sheet test each week – until your team is 100% aligned.

The truth is in the numbers. Here’s the next enemy of a constructive fight: emotions. Passion is good. But it’s hard to argue emotions – sometimes even impossible. Just look at the emotions involved in current US politics, Brexit and so on. Your trick as a team leader is to push for the facts. What does our research tell us? How fast is that market growing? What are the full costs?

Of course, reviewing facts won’t tell you the future. It’s like looking into the rear-view mirror. But at least for the past performance, for what’s been researched, for what’s been benchmarked, you want the facts – not the emotions. In a debate, facts are your ingredient for calm.

There’s more than one answer. Competition is good. For complex problems, why not have different people work on different options? Just imagine, for example, a launch campaign for a new product. What if three team members (or teams) work on the following three plans: a) a broad media launch, b) a social media-only launch, c) a shoestring-budget launch. Would you benefit from seeing all three options? You sure would – so would your team.

Hear me out. What can you do to involve the introverts, the junior voices, the people who don’t dare to speak up? You already know what I mean – yet we tend to forget this. If some people are dominating the debate, it’s not their fault – it’s the leader’s oversight. Power balance is key for constructive fights. And it’s you, the leader, who creates that balance.

By the way: hearing people out will be useless if your team members don’t bring different perspectives. Diversity matters. Don’t hire people to the team who think and act like you do. If you don’t know where to start, try to mirror your customer base.

READ MORE: How HP hires for ‘diversity of thought’

Let’s agree to disagree. Consensus is good – if it’s real. Don’t try to find consensus if there isn’t any. It’s perfectly fine to summarise what people think – including where there’s no agreement. In fact, in most marketing issues, you won’t have consensus.

People may have fallen in love with a plan they’ve developed. People may interpret facts differently. And if it’s about the future, it’s hard to align anyway. That’s fine. Make the differences clear. And take the decision as the most senior leader. Eisenhardt calls this “consensus with qualification”. Don’t teach your team to always agree. Teach your team to value disagreement – and live with it.

Have a laugh. Your team tackles serious business issues, customer issues, marketing issues. That’s important. But at the end of the day, everybody is doing their job. You are not leading machines – you are leading people.

As a team leader, you are the chief mood officer. If matters turn too serious, inject some positive spirit. If Eisenhardt’s study is anything to go by, humour works pretty well. Make sure people can still say ‘working in this team is fun’.

Ready? Then go and have a good fight.

Thomas Barta is a marketing leadership expert, speaker and the co-author of ‘The 12 Powers of a Marketing Leader’. He has teamed up with Marketing Week to launch the Marketing Leadership Masterclass, a new CPD-accredited online course designed to equip marketers with everything they need to become a better leader. To find out more and book your place visit leadership.marketingweek.com