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Conflict in the workplace can either be constructive or destructive. There is little if any middle ground. In previous posts, I’ve written about conflict resolution skills – for example, when I discussed how to turn conflict into innovation, and carefronting vs. confronting to address a difficult breakdown in communication.
In this article, you’ll learn strategies for managing conflict in the workplace when there is a fear of conflict. In other words, how to promote healthy conflict and increase engagement in team situations.
Why can a lack of conflict be destructive?
In his book, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, Patrick Lencioni describes the second dysfunction as the fear of conflict.
Describing a workplace seemingly in harmony, Lencioni says, “It’s the lack of conflict that’s a problem. Harmony itself is good, if it comes as a result of working through issues constantly and cycling through conflict. But if it comes only as a result of people holding back their opinions and honest concerns, then it’s a bad thing.”
Where this fear of conflict exists, teams tend to have boring, unproductive meetings. Company politics dictate personal attacks, and controversial subjects are ignored. The outcome is that decisions made are either ill-informed or lack the opinions and foresight of all team members, and there is a lot of energy (and time) wasted by the need to manage interpersonal relationships in a reactive rather than proactive manner.
The benefits of healthy conflict within a team
Lencioni summarizes that there are five distinct benefits of teams that engage in healthy conflict. These are:
- Livelier and more engaging meetings
- Team members are not afraid to put forward their ideas, giving the team more perspectives to utilize
- Real problems are solved more quickly
- Company politics are minimized
- Significant topics are discussed and analyzed effectively
Managing conflict in the workplace to access the benefits of healthy conflict
The industry and leadership coaching experience of the team here at Forward Focus has helped us to identify several strategies that will help encourage healthy conflict in the workplace, and to manage that conflict. These include:
Use team members individually
Every individual has their strengths and weaknesses. As a leader, it is imperative that you leverage individual strengths. However, individual strengths must be used to promote team goals and align with the strengths of others. For example, you may have a natural note-taker and a natural conversation starter – you should highlight these individual skills, and how they dovetail for the good of the team.
Identify and reinforce team goals
Setting and reinforcing group goals helps to remove individual motivations and replace them with a collective focus. Of course, within the team each member has their own role and responsibility aligned to the team goal. Without each playing their part, the team will fail in its goal. It is the team that is rewarded for success, and not individuals. Encourage discussion and dissection of individual responsibilities and progress, with the team openly challenging members about personal progress.
Activate conflict by allowing a team member to discuss hidden disagreements and objections. Only by doing so can the team work through them and arrive at a successful solution or satisfactory compromise.
Remind people that conflict is allowed
From time to time, it may be necessary for you as a team leader to remind the team that different opinions and ideas can be voiced. Ensure that it is understood that this is how the best solutions to problems are delivered – by healthy debate in an open and honest environment.
Share decision-making powers
Encourage group responsibility by sharing the power to make decisions. A good team will come to a consensus decision if not a unanimous one, in an environment where all voices are heard and all opinions expressed. In this way, solutions should be made transparently and with greater clarity, ensuring that the majority decision is accepted and promoted by all.
Set rules for workplace conflict
Finally, no conflict should be waged without a set of rules to ensure a clean fight! Here is an example set of conflict rules:
- Set out a process of conflict, including the roles to be played by individuals.
- Ensure that there is an ultimate decision-maker.
- Discuss ideas, and not people – don’t get personal.
- Assume there will be multiple solutions and discuss the merits of each.
- Use data to inform judgements.
- Follow up with one-to-ones to ensure individuals are happy that their views were voiced and listened to.
Enable individuals to engage in healthy conflict
Lencioni concludes that “Our ability to engage in passionate, unfiltered debate about what we need to do to succeed will determine our future as much as any products we develop or partnerships we sign.”
It’s imperative that you enable your team members to engage in healthy conflict, not simply by telling them it is fine to do so, but by reinforcing with conflict education. TKI (Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument) is a professional tool that we use to measure the natural conflict response of an individual. It will help an organization’s management to more easily coach their employees to constructively handle conflict, and to participate in healthy debates.
Contact Forward Focus today to discuss how TKI and conflict coaching can help your business toward its goals.