Managing team conflict can send shudders down the spine of even the most seasoned managers. Conflict can be daunting, but it doesn’t have to be a bad thing. In many cases, effectively managing conflict within a team can lead to greater learning and discovery.
Healthy vs. Unhealthy Conflict
We’ve all been a part of a conflict that we’d consider unhealthy. This often involves disrespectful debate, rude commentary, and an unwillingness to see the perspective of others. On the other hand, healthy conflict involves constructive commentary, productive discussion around why something should or shouldn’t happen, and usually results in people finding a middle ground. While both sides of a conflict can feel uncomfortable in the moment, healthy conflict will usually lead to some form of resolution, whereas unhealthy conflict will likely lead to resentment and tarnished egos.
As a leader, it’s important to have a grasp on when conflict can be productive, and when it’s getting out of hand. Yet, shutting down any conflict can be counterproductive. As shared by HBR, “Conflict engages. If people have no opinions, no objections, and no emotions, it usually means they don’t care.” Encouraging constructive, productive disagreement can be very beneficial. A disagreement can get people to pay attention, engage on the topic at hand, and may result in some new learning that you may not have had otherwise.
How to Turn Conflict into Positive Change
Despite the potential benefit of conflict, it can still feel very uncomfortable if not properly managed. Managing conflict effectively, especially as a leader, requires some skill. The first step in managing conflict is accepting it – get comfortable with it as a natural part of leading teams. Resist the instinct to shy away from conflict and instead embrace it as an opportunity for learning.
However, accepting conflict as a natural part of leadership doesn’t mean that you should be unprepared. If you are leading a team, especially a larger or more senior team, consider having conflict management resolutions in place. These might include developing team norms like:
- Keep conversation respectful. In other words: no name-calling, lead with “I” and not “We” and avoid interruptions.
- Identify a moderator. This role often naturally falls to the team leader. If things are getting too heated, know when to call it off and suggest another meeting when cooler heads prevail. The leader can also moderate the discussion to ensure all opinions are heard.
- Avoid the “meeting after the meeting”. Commit to having conversations as a team and avoid continuing those conversations afterward without everyone involved. This can often lead to gossip and miscommunication, neither of which are productive forms of resolving conflict.
In addition, when discussions get heated, leaders should always anchor back to the team’s purpose. Remind the team that everyone is working toward the same outcome. Any conflict the team is experiencing is a result of that passion, and in pursuit of the best outcome possible. Sometimes just resetting the tone and anchoring back to the purpose will calm tensions by reminding the team of their common goal.
Managing Conflict Among Team Members
In some cases, the conflict may not be resolved in a team meeting, and this can cause some tension. As a leader, work to discern when it’s time to take a break and consider whether it’s appropriate to follow up with the respective team members individually. This will give a leader the opportunity to gain trust and build empathy with each colleague individually and allow them to feel heard in a less stressful setting. “Conflict often carries with it a heavy dose of emotion. One or both of your colleagues may be seriously angry. One or both may feel intimidated by the other. Meeting with each separately will give the angry colleague an opportunity to vent, give you a chance to reassure the intimidated colleague that you will listen, and may surface information ultimately useful to resolving the conflict – information that colleagues either haven’t shared with each other or haven’t heard if shared” (HBR). Playing the position of mediator can feel a little uncomfortable, but will ultimately ensure people feel heard, and allow you to drive to a resolution with a full understanding of everyone’s positions.
Conflict is guaranteed in work settings, but it’s not all bad! Successful leaders will navigate conflict in a way that not only leads to resolution, but that builds trust and empathy within teams. This trust will create a foundation of understanding and allow for healthy conflict and continuous learning.
Effective communication is a vital part of conflict resolution. If your team needs guidance and tools to improve communication skills, our Communication Journey is just what you need. Co-created with Francesca Gino, in this journey, your team will participate in four curated experiences to improve communication.