I’ve come to believe in the value of conflict as I see leaders struggle with it. It wasn’t always that way for me; early in my career I viewed conflict as a negative thing. I worked at a company for many years where conflict was avoided. Employees tended to agree in public meetings, but have one-to-one meetings afterwards where they vented their real opinions. It could be devastating to important corporate initiatives.
I’ve come to know other organizations that encourage conflict, often as a method of coming to agreement or boosting innovation and creativity. Some do this well, I know. Some others shut out the more sensitive or introverted workers who can’t seem to enjoy the raucousness of the debate or haven’t figured out their way into the extraverted, loud, hearty, and/or heated debate, thus their ideas and voices are lost.
Unhealthy conflicts (those that are avoided or shut out some ideas) can cause an organization to become dysfunctional. There might be a decrease in authentic connections, triggering a negative impact to productivity with behind-the-scenes scheming or passive behaviors that slow or stop progress.
Consider the organization you lead. Are the conflicts productive and respectful? Do they lead to outcomes that are beneficial? If not, unhealthy conflict can be turned around by a leader who is courageous enough to work hard at it. If you are willing to begin, here are some beginning ways that you can encourage healthy conflict:
Be intentional and have dialog: You can be intentional through your words and your actions. Model the behaviors you want to see in your organization to encourage healthy conflict. Setting aside time to dialog with your team about the value of conflict and what it means to have healthy, respectful conflict is a first step. Ask your team to hold you accountable to having healthy conflict, just as they hold each other accountable.
Set ground rules: What behaviors do you envision your team exhibiting during healthy conflict? Have a conversation up front, and together with the team to discuss what this looks like. Such ground rules as listening with respect, making sure everyone has their say, and staying on the topic are some suggestions. If the team will make final decisions about the things that are in conflict together, decide how it will be made: by majority vote, consensus, by the team leader or some other way? Make sure everyone agrees to decision methodology.
Notice and commend: Notice when you see the preferred behaviors exhibited. Commend people who are showing these behaviors publicly. Likewise, if someone on the team is continually exhibiting the kind of behaviors that derail team success at having healthy conflict, speak to them in private about what you observe and reinforce the behavioral standards the team has agreed to.
I’ve noticed that many leaders appreciate conflict but don’t know how to make sure it is productive and healthy. I hope some of these ideas help. What would you add to the list?