03 Jan When Conflict Can Help at Work
When people hear the word “conflict,” the first thing that pops into mind is likely something negative. Whether it be an image of two people arguing, or a more conceptual understanding of poor communication, conflict tends to be thought of in negative terms exclusively. However, conflict doesn’t always have to be bad.
Conflict can be healthy or unhealthy. Knowing the difference between the two can help your team capitalize on conflict when it arises, and grow through it. The main determining factor between types of conflict is its intent. Unhealthy conflict arises with an intent to damage. For example, two team members are working on a project. Regardless of whether they get along, conflict can arise. Team Member A thinks that the presentation Team Member B came up with looks unprofessional, and doesn’t represent all the hard work they have done the past few months. In unhealthy conflict, A would not provide constructive criticism. They would just say “I hate this,” without providing further detail that would help the project and team succeed.
Healthy conflict is still conflict, rising from a difference of opinions or goals, but it has a more constructive intent, one that desires to understand and work towards a solution, rather than to tear others down. In the same scenario, Team Member A might say, “I want to showcase all the hard work we have done during our presentation. Can you help me to understand the decisions you made on XYZ? I’m not sure I agree with ABC.” Phrasing things this way allows both team members to understand the reasoning behind certain decisions. Hearing out the other party’s explanation may even lead the team to agree that a decision was the best one, given the available options.
Though healthy conflict can result in beneficial team growth and bonding, it can still go poorly if the team does not have a safe space to communicate in. An environment where any criticism or issue is shut down or reacted to in an emotionally volatile way will only spawn unhealthy conflict. The team has to be open to discussion – don’t cover conflict up, but lean in and deal with the situation. As a manager, reminding your people that conflict is inevitable but that they can learn from it is essential. Perhaps even more essential is letting them know you will be there to help guide and mediate until they are comfortable handling issues on their own.
In managing conflict, there may be times where you need to correct behavior. Remind people to discuss the issue at hand, and most certainly not making personal attacks. And remind those on the receiving end of criticism that the comments aren’t directed at their work or personhood, but rather a tool to strengthen the team and the work as a whole.
A great place to start is by creating a conflict resolution process. While every issue might be different, everyone should be able to follow the same steps of resolution (and if need be, escalation). All team members should be aware of the process. That way, everyone is equally accountable and on the same page should issues arise.
When conflict does arise, time is of the essence. Generally, you should address conflict at the time it occurs. If needed, allow a few minutes for team members to cool off should emotions flare, but remember that the more time passes, the longer the issue is allowed to fester and the more resentment and tension are allowed to build. Call a “timeout.” Everyone should pause, take a moment to breathe, and then meet as a group to put the issue on the table. Prioritize the team and its individual members’ needs, and work together to find a solution.
During solution-finding, discuss the root cause of the conflict. What changes have occurred, what triggered someone to snap? What needs to change to get everyone back on track? In this, you will find your solution. Be certain no one is pointing fingers, or focusing on punishing team members, but do hold your team accountable for their behavior. Conflict resolution should be a learning experience, rather than a disciplinary meeting.
Once the solution is found, you must follow through with a plan of action to fully resolve the conflict. Remember – talk is cheap, and only the first step in conflict resolution. Whatever solution your team decided on must be followed through not only by them, but by yourself.
If conflicts continue to arise amongst your team members, it may be beneficial to examine the team itself. Oftentimes, teams are formed with little-to-no forethought. “Many hands make light work,” but only if team members are in the right roles, and can get along well with each other. If you have a team comprised of people who work well independently, with no strong leadership and no clear deliverables, the group is bound to have issues before they can even start. Similarly, a team of aggressive go-getters may all be vying for the top spot, rather than focusing on the tasks at hand. Whether you are hiring an individual for a role or putting together a team of current employees, be certain they are the right fit for the role. Choose a good leader that will prioritize both the work, but the needs of their individual team members, to avoid issues before they start; and be certain all employees are in their best fit positions.
Conflict can feel incredibly overwhelming, but there are steps you can take to nip it in the bud. And should an issue arise, feel confident in knowing your team can put in the work to resolve and grow through it!