If we manage conflict constructively, we harness its energy for creativity and development – Kenneth Kaye

Conflict is a necessary part of any healthy team. Disagreements are an inevitable, normal, and healthy part of relating to other people. We must be able to disagree about ideas. We must be able to acknowledge differences of opinion and work towards the best outcome. Yet, whether at work or at home, many of us do everything we can to hide from it, suppress it, pretend it doesn’t exist.

In other words, we’re not doing the best job at confronting conflict. And often when we do, passive aggression rears its ugly head and we take shots at one another in veiled and indirect ways, or it erupts into outright heated arguments. Few of us have been formally taught the skills to foster healthy conflict.

Extensive research has demonstrated that conflict, when managed properly, strengthens relationships and teams and can serve as a catalyst for better solutions, innovation and growth. So, if you want to have a healthy team, you need to find a way to have healthy conflict.

Establishing a team charter with expectations and processes around how to communicate, how to give feedback, how to disagree, and how to manage conflict is a critical first step. Lay down some ground rules about how to constructively disagree and follow those rules consistently over time. It’s really important in any conflict that all sides feel heard. You want people to talk to one another and not about one another. Equip your team with the ability to give and receive feedback.

From there, remember to:

Encourage dialogue and values based conversations. Have the group share their core values—these are often the source of our long standing conflicts. When things get heated, chances are there are conflicting values at play. And those values are often right vs. right struggles, not right vs. wrong. Help team members talk through which of their values buttons are being pushed.
Pick a devil’s advocate. Get everyone to build their skills for healthy conflict by appointing a different devil’s advocate in meetings. While in this role, a team member asks questions to probe ideas and challenge complacent group think. As more and more members of the team get accustomed to doing this, it will no longer be necessary to designate an official role.
Ask questions and be curious. Don’t interpret silence in a room as assent. Don’t assume all those nodding heads mean that everyone agrees. Ask people to state their position and talk about why they believe it’s so. At the end of the conversation, if everybody agrees you’ve got agreement you can trust.

As leaders part of our job is to help people hear one another – to help them seek understanding, not necessarily agreement. At the end of the day, it’s up to you to model good communication skills. In conversations, slow things down, listen deeply, ask questions, have people restate what they’ve heard, and check for understanding. Stay focused on the desired outcomes and goals of the team.

Author

Tom Epperson

Tom Epperson

Dr. Tom Epperson is the President of InnerWill, and an instructor in Virginia Commonwealth University’s Executive MBA program. Tom is a certified business coach and has a Doctorate in Leadership from The George Washington University. Tom works with clients on cultural transformation, leadership development, executive coaching, and igniting individual and organizational potential. Previously, Tom served as the HR Director for Luck Companies, and played a significant role as one of the architects of Luck Companies’ cultural transformation.