Team conflict can make even the most seasoned leaders shudder. Destructive and unresolved conflict can damage team relationships, waste valuable time and resources, and cause team members to disengage. In a word, conflict can be disastrous. But despite the pitfalls, team conflict has the potential to drive innovation and performance as a facet of robust team interactions. Team members who learn to step into the fray for the purpose of discovering the very best solutions will reap the returns of good conflict.
The trouble is that many people are so afraid of potentially destructive conflict that they avoid all conflict like the plague. Team members might go along with ideas they don’t agree with in silence or choose not to raise a concern because it might not be welcome. If your team is avoiding conflict, your relationships and your outcomes will suffer. In fact, avoiding conflict can be especially damaging to your team culture over the long-term. Conflict in high functioning teams is inevitable, so it’s vital to make conflict work in your favor.
Follow the Rules
In war there are rules of engagement. In team conflict there are rules too. Establishing a few guiding principles for how your team will handle conflict when it arises will go a long way toward ensuring that it is resolved effectively. Think of conflict like a game, with rules of participation that ensure everyone has a fair shot at the goal. The team must know what is in bounds and what is out of bounds, and how to call a foul. Sometimes a referee is needed to throw a flag on the play.
Some rules will be general – like “no personal attacks.” Other rules might be specific to your team, such as “fix it by Friday.” Of course, the type of conflict will dictate how the rules are applied. Conflict rising from different ideas about how to proceed with a project are different than conflicts between two team members who don’t see eye to eye. In every case of conflict, the rules should protect the participants from bullying and encourage engaged discussion until a resolution is reached.
Uncover the Cause
Sometimes the cause of conflict is not what it seems at first. Yet, the only way a conflict can really come to resolution is by getting to the root of the problem. Dealing with surface discrepancies without finding the underlying cause will only postpone the conflict. The key to finding the cause is to ask questions and be open to the answers. This can be uncomfortable and we may be tempted to shut the conversation down when we don’t like the answers. Yet, if we don’t pursue the problem, we can never find real resolution.
Conflict arises for a variety of reasons from simple misunderstanding to differences in deeply held beliefs. Taking the perspective of the other person can give us insights that move toward shared understanding. Shared understanding doesn’t mean achieving agreement, but it does mean addressing the root cause of conflict with mutual respect. When we’re open to taking a deeper look, even if we aren’t comfortable with what we see, we can make progress toward a common vision and grow together in the process.
Nobody likes criticism and nothing can put people on the defensive faster than feeling like they, or their ideas, are being torn apart. Once a team member feels defensive, a conflict is already brewing. The solution is not to stop giving and receiving feedback – feedback is vital to growing and learning and refining your work. The key, then, is to change our approach to feedback by actively issuing an invitation.
When a team member presents his or her work for review by the team, the team member can also invite feedback on certain elements or from specific people. This shifts the interaction from an unsolicited critique that is likely to make the individual cringe to a welcome opportunity for fresh eyes and insights that foster improvement and growth. When the feedback is invited, it’s much less likely to put the team member on the defensive or spark hurt feelings that cause harmful conflict.
Focus the Fight
Rabbit trails and red herrings are easy distractions in a disagreement. Getting off track doesn’t help create solutions. In fact, distractions can even be a way of avoiding the real issues. Instead, confronting conflict means staying focused on finding solutions. When the conflict gets convoluted, the path forward is to focus on one critical issue at a time so it can be resolved and put to rest.
Like boxers in the ring, extra people or ideas should not be allowed in to confuse the matter. Even former conflicts or related issues are off limits while the round is underway. It might take a friendly reminder to stay in bounds, but your team will accomplish more with conflict when they stay focused on a singular issue until it is resolved.
Friends Off the Field
Ultimately, strong social relationships help us navigate conflict and achieve the best outcomes. The more we like someone, the more we’re willing to overlook small offenses and do the work to create solutions for big ones. When we value someone’s perspective, even if we disagree with their conclusion, we do more to find common ground. That’s why one of the best things you can do for your team’s conflict is foster strong professional friendships.
Like the good sportsmanship displayed by athletes at the end of heated match, you and your team can walk out of a heated debate shaking hands and congratulating each other for a “good game.” Conflict doesn’t need to be divisive when the people involved are committed to creating better outcomes and maintaining good working relationships. When the team embraces conflict as a tool for sorting through solutions and sharpening performance, everyone benefits and builds each other up in the end.