Why does it seem like any time you’re involved with a group of people for an extended period of time, conflict is likely? Maybe inevitable?
Because we’re human. We have different perspectives. Different needs. Different preferences. Different expectations.
Within companies, conflict impacts team dynamics and the speed and quality of team results.
You try to use your position as a leader to communicate consistently — and constantly. You encourage people to settle their difference and cooperate for the good of the team.
But conflict keeps showing up.
People disagree. Sometimes loudly. Sometimes in whispers. Sometimes it’s not verbalized, but you can read the body language and feel the tension in the air.
Some people invite conflict and it brings out their aggressive kill-or-be-killed mentality. They use it like a weapon to unsettle other people and get their way.
Others shrink from conflict and it stifles their creativity and diminishes their effort. They withdraw. Some even hide.
As a leader, you can play whack-a-mole and try to eliminate conflict whenever you see it.
Or you can use it as a positive force.
For ideas. For growth. For the health of your team. For a powerful competitive advantage.
Better Than Starbucks and a Peloton Workout
Too many leaders try to eliminate disagreement or conflict because they don’t want their employees to feel uncomfortable. They don’t want people’s feelings to get hurt. And then they’re completely surprised by the unintended consequences.
According to Patrick Lencioni in his book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, When team members do not openly debate and disagree about important ideas, they often turn to back-channel personal attacks, which are far nastier and more harmful than any heated argument over issues.
Rather than allow situations to be uncomfortable and messy when conflict arises, true leaders understand that harnessing the energy of healthy conflict can invigorate a team and accelerate the growth of an organization. It is powerful.
When people can speak with candor, it enhances the speed at which honest, accurate information flows through an organization.
Meetings are more productive. Misunderstanding and miscommunication are minimized. Decisions are made faster. The team becomes more productive. The organization becomes more agile.
When disagreement and conflict are managed properly, bonds form among team members and existing relationships get strengthened. The team gains confidence in tackling difficult situations and making tough decisions.
Faster? Stronger? Healthier? More durable? All reasons for you to figure out how you can introduce and reinforce healthy conflict in your organization.
Your Mindset and Where to Shine the Light
Conflict exists in growth organizations. All of them.
If that sounds like hyperbole, consider the natural conflicts of:
- Sales vs. administration
- Short term considerations vs. long term growth
- Controlling expenses vs. investing for the future
- Risk vs. reward
- The behaviors that got us here vs. the behaviors that will get us there
Your mindset should be to recognize that conflict exists. Acknowledge it. Talk about it. Bring it into the light.
Your people need to understand the difference between constructive conflict and destructive conflict.
If problems are ignored or not addressed as they occur, at best it slows the team down. At worst, problems never get solved. They become chronic. And they fester.
Be aware of your own behavioral style around conflict. If you like “stirring it up,” you may have to consider how you can invite conflict so that the idea is well-received by those who are wired differently. If you tend to shy away from conflict, consider how you can lean into your discomfort in order to more effectively lead your team.
Keep in mind the words of Kim Scott, in her book Radical Candor: to be a good boss, you have to Care Personally at the same time that you Challenge Directly.
When you demonstrate genuine personal interest for your team members, you engender trust. This allows you to nudge the organization, and its members, towards the healthy team behaviors you seek.
Create a Safe Space for the Hunter / Gatherers
If people can’t safely express their opinions and ideas, it is hard to get their full commitment.
Accountability won’t take place if people are walking on eggshells.
A necessary component for addressing conflict in a healthy manner is creating and maintaining a safe environment. People need to trust that the leader won’t tolerate the negative behaviors that can come with destructive conflict, such as gossip, favoritism, blame, and retribution.
Simon Sinek has a great TED Talk entitled “Why Good Leaders Make You Feel Safe.” He suggests that throughout human existence, humans have had to deal with the dangers “out there.” At one time it may have been woolly mammoths or saber-toothed tigers. Today it may be ruthless competitors or disruptive technologies. In order to deal with those external dangers, we need to feel safe within our tribe. Hunter / gatherers from your village. Or your teammates at work.
Leaders need to set the ground rules that create a safe space inside their organizations. To embrace our differences. To elicit our best ideas. To generate our best efforts.
Establish some ground rules for discussions and meetings that promote safety. Some possible rules are:
- Treat each other with respect
- Try not to interrupt others
- No one is allowed to monopolize the discussion
- You can disagree with the idea, but not with the person; don’t let it become personal
- Make sure everyone is respectful of the time and the need to get input from other participants
- Listen to others and ask questions to get clarification
- Once we make a decision, everyone needs to respect and support it, period
- Practice blameless problem-solving
The last item has been embraced as a core behavioral statement by hundreds of clients of culture guru David Friedman, which he outlines in his book Fundamentally Different. The blame game promotes destructive conflict.
Aretha Knew Where to Focus
According to Ichak Adizes, in order to have constructive conflict, you must have a culture of mutual respect and trust. The operative word here is “mutual.” It isn’t enough that your employees trust and respect you. You must extend respect and trust to them. And you need to do it first.
Adizes defines respect and trust as follows:
Respect — to recognize the sovereignty of the other person to think differently.
You must give them the space to think differently. Different ideas and different perspectives provide us a great opportunity to learn from one another.
Trust — when you believe that the other person has your interests at heart; when you share a common interest.
When you have alignment based on common interest, when I win, you win. When I lose, you lose.
“When a team has trust, conflict becomes nothing but the pursuit of truth, an attempt to find the best possible answer.” — Patrick Lencioni
Model It, Develop It, Reinforce It
Most people haven’t worked in an organization that intentionally fosters healthy conflict, so don’t expect people to know how to act. You will have to train them. It will require discipline, repetition and patience on your part.
Brad Weinbrum is the CEO of Nivalmi Consulting and serves as the outsourced Chief Transformation Officer for a number of large private companies that are seeking to accelerate their growth. Central to his transformation role is teaching leadership teams how to develop candor and cultivate healthy conflict.
Brad, in his former role as President of ABB OPTICAL GROUP, had worked closely with CEO Angel Alvarez to build the organizational capacity of the Company for growth. The result was a contact lens distribution business that they grew from $20 million in revenues when Brad joined Angel, to the industry leader, doing $1.3 billion. They were intentional about building an environment where constructive disagreement was expected and the need for candor was understood. They role modeled it. Publicly. In staff meetings with their direct reports. In leadership development meetings with mid-level managers. In town hall meetings with all of their employees.
Angel and Brad would disagree with one another, sometimes with humor, sometimes with serious conviction, but always with respect. Occasionally they would pause and publicly acknowledge what had just taken place: disagreement, different perspectives, mutual respect and ultimate support. A leadership best practice. A necessary behavior in a growing company.
Angel is both charismatic and visionary, and his employees loved him. The first time Brad challenged Angel publicly, employees were shocked. Some were horrified. Publicly challenging the founder? Disagreeing with the CEO? Wasn’t that behavior something between reckless and career suicide?
And then the employees saw Angel concede and agree to support Brad’s point of view. They saw humility. Respect. Employees witnessed the pursuit of truth. They experienced the positive power of healthy conflict. They could feel it.
According to Brad, at least twice a year they would make it a priority and discuss candor and healthy conflict. With examples. Each time the discussion brought energy to the team, built mutual trust and solidified commitment. Why did they continue to highlight it? Because people forget and fall back into old habits. New people join the company and it can change the dynamics. People don’t just need passive reminders about healthy conflict, they need to see it in action. They need to demonstrate it themselves. They need to practice it. Regularly.
In his book Winning, Jack Welch spent a whole chapter on the importance of candor in a company to reduce confusion and get the best ideas. He suggested that candor allows a company to quickly address problems and opportunities and to save the company both time and money. Welch says that in order to get candor, “you reward it, praise it, and talk about it. Most of all, you demonstrate it in an exuberant and even exaggerated way.”
First Trust and Respect, Then Diversity and Disagreement!
You can’t escape conflict. It surfaces on teams. In departments. Between leaders. No matter what you do.
You build a culture to pull everyone together and rally them towards a common purpose. Providing mutual support. All oars pulling together.
But on a regular basis, there it is. Disagreement. Different ideas. Conflicting opinions.
When conflict is negative, it creates friction. Friction slows progress and stifles creativity and teamwork.
At its worst, it can create a toxic work environment.
However, healthy conflict expands creativity and invites growth. Teams grow stronger and more confident in facing future challenges.
If trust doesn’t exist within your team, achieving healthy conflict is challenging. It may be impossible.
Lead with integrity. Share with transparency. Communicate regularly. And then communicate some more.
If you want your team members to understand the value of conflict and its positive influence, start with yourself. Start with trust. Extend trust to others before you expect to receive it from them.
Then shine a light on healthy conflict. Teach it. Train it. Role model it.
Celebrate differences and invite contrary viewpoints. Ensure that candor is a part of your culture.
Then watch the dynamics in your team.
Learning. Growth. Agility. Speed. Productivity. Resiliency.
And then you have something that most other companies don’t have: engaged employees who can handle whatever comes their way.
Now that’s a competitive advantage.