Why do so many of us run from conflict? Why not embrace it?
It’s not a terrible idea. In fact, conflict is good for teams when it’s managed well.
Yet, it’s almost always not well-managed.
A quarter of employees say their boss handles conflict poorly or very poorly, according to a Myers-Briggs survey. In the heat of conflict, many managers try to minimize tension and avoid a clash of ideas and attitudes.
And that can be the first mistake in conflict management.
“Most leaders think conflict is a bad thing. They avoid it at all costs. They are uncomfortable with it. When they hear it with their employees, they either cut it off or say, ‘take it offline,'” says Steven L. Blue, CEO of Miller Ingenuity and author of Metamorphosis. “But conflict is not a bad thing.”
When conflict is good
While conflict itself isn’t necessarily bad, there’s a part of conflict that’s troublesome for managers and their organization.
“Unresolved or buried conflict is the enemy of every organization,” says Blue. “Productive conflict resolution is essential to all progress in an organization — and destructive if the organization ignores it.”
So, some of the best ways to handle conflict is meet it head-on. Use conflict management strategies to stay ahead of or get behind healthy head-butting.
“There’s a major misconception about conflict resolution. Conflict resolution is not ‘fighting,'” says Blue. “It is a tool to expose the conflicts that already exist in the organization and a method to solve problems and create opportunities.”
Here are six strategies to manage conflict in the workplace.
1. Embrace conflict
Unresolved, ignored conflict can lead to far worse things than heated words or hard feelings.
Case in point: Blue researched internal communication at the bankrupt Takata Corporation, which manufactured seat belt buckles and airbags that tragically failed. The underlying issue that lead to deaths and a billion-dollar fallout: miscommunication and pussyfooting by engineers (who suspected issues) to avoid conflict with the C-Suite.
Better: Do more than encourage employees to constructively bring up concerns — most especially safety concerns. Give them channels to do it. Some people will always be uncomfortable with conflict, so you might need to offer an anonymous channel. Otherwise, offer meeting space and mediation, if they’d prefer. Invite opposing opinions in meetings. Ask them to submit questions, concerns and counter views before you meet so you can manage opposition effectively while meeting.
2. Pursue problems
Many times, conflict festers undetected because people don’t recognize symptoms. Teams are so cohesive, they think everything they do is great, missing issues that an opposing opinion might have brought up.
If a team is super aligned, leaders probably need to introduce the monkey wrench of conflict.
Better: Even when all seems agreeable, ask the team:
- What would happen if we did not do X?
- What would happen if we continued to do Y, despite knowing what we know now?
- How can we alter our decision to do X and make it better?
3. Set the standard
Some people fear conflict because they think it’s defined by raised voices, talking over others and having to be right. It’s not. It’s about listening to different views, talking respectfully, weighing pros and cons, and doing what’s right.
Better: If you must, at first set rules or standards for engaging in conflict on your team. Some rules we’ve heard of:
- Each person gets three minutes for their talking point
- Use professional tone and volume
- Maintain a respectful demeanor
- Do not interrupt, and
- Offer two solutions.
4. Keep your ear to the ground
“Do not fall into the trap that conflict causes problems. It does not,” says Blue. “As the leader, not only should you encourage conflict, but you should also demand it.”
Team members, colleagues and even your boss might be inclined to avoid conflict. They might gloss over uncomfortable or inconvenient topics or just try to make everyone get along in meetings. Then, on the side or in whispers, there’s a rumbling of discontent.
That’s your cue to step in and speak up.
Better: Call it out. Say, “I know there are problems we aren’t bringing up, so let’s get to them. What are they? What do you think we need to work out?”
5. Mix up team dynamics
Team dynamics can affect creativity and the healthy conflict that contributes to new ideas. In separate studies, researchers found teams that are too familiar are less creative than those that mix up the dynamics. For instance, Broadway musicals with a medium level of connectivity were the most critically acclaimed and financially successful. The cast and crew had bonds to trust and enable each other, yet there were enough transitioning members to keep new ideas flowing in, one study found.
Better: Build teams on trust, enablement and willingness to accept new members and concepts. Then, when conflict arises they can work respectfully to make progress. (For more on the science behind teams — what really makes them click, tick and excel — I haven’t seen a better compilation of team research than this from Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.)
6. Know when to stop it
While most conflict is healthy, there is a point when it’s time to step in and stop it. Exactly when?
“If and when it devolves into ‘blamestorming’ or a ‘chess match,’ where one person is trying to out game the other,” says Blue. “Remember, conflict resolution should always be hard on the problem, not the people. This will not ever happen if you give your team the tools and techniques of productive conflict resolution.”
Better: Once managers guide their employees through effective conflict management (with tactics noted above), you should likely only have to react to conflict when it arises outside your normal team dynamics. That’s when you might have to “take it offline.”