Conflict in all its forms has been happening since the beginning of time. It exists in nature, business, families – anywhere, really, where living beings cross paths. And it happens for so many reasons: when trust is betrayed, when a value is not honoured, when beliefs get in the way, when views differ, when personalities clash, when ego comes into play… The potential for conflict is all around us.
Conflict can be a trigger for many people, who will do almost anything to avoid it. On the flip side, you’ve no doubt met people who provoke conflict and seem to get energy from the drama of it. It’s often perceived as a negative event, something we should steer clear of, but in teams, it’s essential. In fact, when teams avoid conflict, they’re denying themselves a valuable opportunity to grow and create positive change. Research even shows that ‘good’ conflict is beneficial for team performance. According to a 2018 study, for example, team creativity is directly linked to task conflict (like when team members disagree on what needs to be done, the goal of a project, etc). It found that innovation and creativity flourish when different ideas, perspectives and knowledge from team members come together to incite healthy discussion and debate.
We coaches have lots of terms for this. The rub. The tension point. If teams are too polite and go along with whatever they’re told, they don’t get enough robustness of thinking and diversity of thought. Tension and healthy disagreement are part of high performance and demonstrate trust. When there can be healthy debate, free of personal attack, and everyone knows the relationships are intact, it’s great. This is healthy and often demonstrates passion and commitment. If you’re having team meetings that feel pleasant, polite and considered, you might need to up the ante and have a conversation about giving each other permission to challenge more.
What’s not healthy, on the other hand, is when conflict within teams undermines trust, impacts productivity and damages relationships. If your team has unhealthy conflict happening, here are five things you can do:
1. Use structure to support the conversations. Not everyone grows up knowing how to have healthy conflict. Use a structured approach to ensure that everyone has an opportunity to both speak and be heard. It could be that you follow an agenda during meetings or that you create three questions that everyone gets a chance to answer.
2. Bring in experts. Sometimes the greatest investment you can make is bringing in professional facilitators and mediators. They can show the way and it can be a really positive experience. It doesn’t need to be dramatic; in fact, it can be such a relief for the team to change up the energy and dynamic by having a professional and neutral person to help guide the conversation.
3. Seek to understand. Conflict in teams so often happens as a result of poor communication, unrecognised values or personal issues. Using a confidential tool like SurveyMonkey and asking people to answer questions that help provide a real understanding of how people are feeling can be really useful. Also encouraging listening and doing a values audit to understand what really matters to people. So often people just want to feel heard and we miss how important that is. Sometimes they don’t even need things to be different, they just want to feel respected.
4. Have an intervention. Sometimes you need a circuit breaker for teams. It might be a fun team-building event to get everyone laughing and remembering that we are all human and in this together. Or it might be that the team needs a reset from the leader, with clear expectations around acceptable behaviours and also what the culture needs to be. It can be as simple as a dinner or as big as setting up individual coaching for each team member.
5. Upskill knowledge and strategies. Sometimes people just really don’t know how to handle conflict. Have everyone attend a conflict workshop together, watch TED Talks or have a guest speaker come in and share strategies. We all have stuff to learn. Managing conflict is a life skill, and it’s the gift of knowing how to navigate it that will stay with you forever.
To learn more about the benefits of conflict, check out this TED Talk from labour organiser Jess Kutch, who discusses the power of ‘productive conflict’ to challenge – and change – what isn’t working in our lives. In another talk, CrisMarie Campbell and Susan Clarke – authors of The Beauty of Conflict: Harnessing Your Team’s Competitive Advantage
– describe conflict as an energy source for creativity, innovation and transformation. And they argue that we should use it, rather than diffuse it. Happy watching!
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