To have positive, productive conflict you need a safe, high-trust environment, explains Lauren Parsons

It may seem counterintuitive, but some of the highest performing teams are ones that have regular conflict. Not disrespectful throwing-one’s-toys-out-of-the-cot style conflict, but positive, productive conflict.

Workplaces that create a safe, high-trust environment that encourages candour will have more potential for open, honest discussions, which lead to better outcomes.

This is exactly the culture leaders cultivate at Pixar, which underpins their success.

Pixar’s President, Ed Catmull, instituted a unique process called a BrainTrust as a way to continually assess and improve every part of a movie before it’s released. BrainTrusts happen regularly throughout a film’s development, bringing together the film’s director with a group of other experienced directors and producers, who are invited to openly critique the movie’s footage to date.

For the BrainTrust to work effectively, candour is required. People need to share honestly which parts felt flat, which characters seemed unbelievable and which storylines were confusing.

BrainTrusts can be harsh. They dissect film footage, moment by moment. Open feedback is not just welcomed, it’s required. Contrary to what happens in most meetings where people hold back from fear of being embarrassed or embarrassing others, participants are encouraged to point out every flaw they see.

BrainTrusts are Pixar’s way of constantly improving things iteration by iteration, detail by detail. Catmull says, “The BrainTrust is the most important thing we do by far.” He admits, “All our movies suck at first. The BrainTrust is where we figure out why they suck, and it’s also where they start to not suck.”

To create a safe and honest environment, they follow certain rules. Feedback is always constructive, delivered with empathy, focused on the project, not the person and offered as a suggestion, not a command.

The team is not allowed to suggest solutions, only to highlight problems. This allows directors to focus on hearing the feedback without getting defensive, as it’s the key reason they are there. Catmull instructs his team to focus on candour above all else. He often sits in on the sessions, not to add his own comments, but to oversee the process.

An example of how effective his process was came in 2006, when Disney bought Pixar.  Disney had been struggling with unsuccessful films for years. Catmull and Chief Creative Officer John Lasseter decided to keep the Disney Animation Studio completely separate from Pixar. They focused on rebuilding trust among Disney’s demoralised staff and introduced BrainTrusts.

With this new approach, Disney went on to produce highly successful films such as Tangled, Wreck-It Ralph and Frozen (the highest grossing animated film of its time). Catmull notes that interestingly, the creators involved were largely the same people who were there when Disney was failing. Those same people were able to create huge successes. He simply made it safe to communicate with such candour that it transformed their results as a group.

Patrick Lencioni, in his book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, describes the five most common challenges teams face (and how to solve them).

It all starts with building trust, as the foundation of dysfunction is an absence of trust.

Without Trust, Nothing Else Works

Without trust, you can’t have open, honest discussions where you can respectfully disagree with colleagues and hear everyone’s honest opinion. A lack of trust holds people back from sharing what they’re thinking out of fear that they might offend someone or be ostracised.

Conversely, in a high psychological safety (high-trust) environment, everyone knows it’s OK to have a different perspective. Opposing points of view are welcomed and encouraged.

If I come to the meeting and say, “I think we should do xyz”, my colleagues can challenge me and say, “Lauren, I don’t think you’ve taken this into consideration; I feel we should be looking at abc”.

Regardless of the final outcome, all parties will feel heard and understood if they’ve been able to air their views. When that doesn’t occur, there is a lack of commitment to goals (because they weren’t fully discussed and agreed on). This flows into a lack of accountability and ultimately poor results.

As you can see, everything starts with trust.

The Five Dysfunctions of a Team

  • Absence of Trust
  • Fear of Conflict
  • Lack of Commitment
  • Avoidance of Accountability
  • Inattention to Results

In contrast, when you build a high-trust environment where people feel comfortable to disagree with one another and have constructive conversations, you get better teamwork and better results.

The key therefore is first building and maintaining trust and having high respect for one another in the way you communicate.

Leaders Need to Foster Trust by Setting Ground Rules

You can help to share this in your workplace by ensuring your leaders can create a ‘psychological safety net’ that helps staff feel safe to share new ideas, question things, experiment and speak up for things they feel are important.

In teams with high psychological safety, people feel confident that no one will punish or embarrass anyone for admitting a mistake, asking a question or offering a different opinion. This has two significant benefits: one, it leads to a plethora of small and large innovations, improvements and new ideas; and two, it ensures staff feel included, heard and valued.

How Do You Build Psychological Safety?

1. Commit and communicate the importance

Leaders need to make it a clear priority and set the example, regularly communicating how vital candour is among team members.

2. Ask great questions and listen deeply

Create a safe environment that encourages people to be open and honest and to feel heard.

3. Facilitate everyone speaking up

Encourage positive, productive conflict and invite diverse opinions to be shared.

4. Make failure OK

Embrace failures with curiosity, reflection and a ‘what can we learn from this?’ mindset.

Practical Ideas to Consider

  • Have learning reflection sessions focused on past failures or mistakes
  • Ask questions like, “What other points of view are we missing here?”
  • Make it normal to admit when you don’t know what to do next and to invite ideas
  • Preface questions with comments like, “There’s no wrong answers on this one. I’m curious…”
  • Ensure everyone has the time and opportunity to contribute (and actively encourage quieter team members in a supportive way)
  • Make it the norm to share how you’re feeling – in one-on-ones and team meetings
  • Practice putting yourself in other people’s shoes, or seeing things from a different perspective
  • Share meeting roles such as chair, timekeeper, note taker, so that people feel they’re on a more level playing field
  • Remind team members conflict can be positive and productive when offered with respect
  • Invite truth-telling and encourage feedback
  • Share stories about learnings from past failures

Rather than perpetuating a culture of false harmony, share this concept with your colleagues and encourage them to speak up and (respectfully) share their mind. In your role, you have the opportunity to influence-up and educate your leaders on why trust and positive conflict are so important.

Be courageous and choose to play the role that Ed Catmull plays, facilitating the process and ensuring open discourse. Watch the benefits that flow.


Creativity, Inc: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration by Amy Wallace and Edwin Catmull

The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni

Lauren Parsons is a New Zealand-based, award-winning Wellbeing Specialist who believes that everyone deserves to thrive. She is passionate about equipping and inspiring people to truly boost their health and happiness. With over 20 years’ experience in ... (Read More)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *