Many people avoid conflict at work like the plague, feeling uncomfortable when things get difficult, fearful that addressing issues will create more, maybe even unresolvable, escalating conflict. And yet workplace conflict can be a good thing, a very good thing even, and should definitely not be feared but addressed.
Let’s be honest – having a team that never has any conflict is impossible. It’s perfectly natural that conflict arises when different people come together. What conflict is after all is a difference of opinion – nothing more, nothing less. And a difference of opinion, when respectfully voiced and carefully managed, can provide an opportunity for reflection, reframing and the creation of new, better ideas and solutions. You could say that there is an inherent power in conflict and tension, which can give a team or an organisation the boost that it needs to move forward, to become more effective. If there is no conflict, things simply remain the same, and in a world that is in constant evolution, maintaining the status quo is just not enough for a business that wants to thrive. Continuous innovation is a necessity for survival.
The first step to managing conflict is to welcome it, rather than fearing it. When two people or more are having different opinions, start by viewing it as a good thing, think “okay, we have some differing views here, what can we learn from each of the different views?” There’s no need to think in terms of “right and wrong” – who’s to be the judge of that anyway? Sometimes we simply need to label something differently in our minds, to be able to see it’s potential – and “right and wrong” is rarely constructive as no one wants to be “wrong”. This approach also de-dramatises conflict, and the need to be defensive of standpoints can evaporate leaving the actual content of the opinion to be considered.
The second step, which is actually an ongoing aspect of teamwork, is to get team members to know each other, really know each other, by openly sharing personal things as well as ideas, experience and expertise. And with knowing comes an opportunity to accept, to recognise that everyone is unique, everyone is contributing something specific to the team – that no one is better than anyone else, they’re just different. Acceptance is key to successful interaction and cooperation between people. Without acceptance, people’s perceptions of each other hinder teamwork and stop the generous sharing of information that every team needs to be able to achieve success.
Resolving team conflict could sound something like this:
Person 1: ‘Okay, I realise that we have some different opinions about this. Tell me more about where you’re coming from with your thoughts on this.’
Person 2: “Well, I just don’t think it’s going to work – it’s too risky.”
Person 1: “Okay. What risks do you foresee?”
Person 2: “We might jeopardise our relationship with our suppliers if we invite other suppliers to submit proposals. It’s a small world, they are bound to find out.”
Person 1: “Yes, that is a valid point. Do you think we could maybe be more open with our existing suppliers, explain that we need new thinking and that we are inviting new ideas, also from them?”
Person 2: “Hmm, that might work. We need to tread very carefully though.”
Person 1: “I agree. Let’s discuss as a team and use all our expertise to make sure we approach them in the best possible way. Good input, thank you – and thanks for challenging.”
Another crucial aspect of teamwork and healthy conflict management is to align everyone to the same outcome, the same goal, the same mission. If you can get everyone to see that they are in it together, that their personal success is linked to the success of everyone else in the team, you create a more collaborative spirit. This reduces the danger of people having their own “agendas”, going off on their own.
And why not recognise when team conflict has been beneficial to the team! Talk about how different ideas and opinions lead to something better to encourage the team members to openly and honestly share their thoughts. If your team is hesitant to share their knowledge, intuitions and opinions then you may temporarily have a quiet, seemingly calm team situation, but sooner or later it will result in greater divides between people, emotional outbursts and even team members who decide to leave the team.
Managing team conflict is everyone’s responsibility, but leaders clearly need to take the lead to foster a climate of open exchange by encouraging people to talk, share, discuss and make decisions as a team. If a leader does this, then he/she can create a very powerful team where the efforts of a team can be multiplied along with the results. Because team members who have experienced conflict and resolved it grow stronger together.
So don’t fear conflict, welcome it for its innovative powers and use it carefully and respectfully.