Having conflict in the workplace may seem like a bad idea, but in reality some conflict is essential. If it is positive it will drive innovation and change. Having authentic disagreements is healthy for your team so that they can have real conversations with each other. When disputes occur, it pushes both sides of the argument to discuss their point of views and try to persuade the other to their side. Conflict can bring about innovation, creativity, and engagement from your team. If these types of conversations don’t occur then there is a real risk of groupthink taking over, your team could be missing out on new ideas and different ways of doing things because no one challenged the status quo and they never had that the disagreement that worked through different options or viewpoints.
Conflict is only healthy though if it is done correctly. If the discussion takes a more argumentative turn or becomes too personal, your team will have a significant problem on their hands. Team members may no longer want to work together, or they may try to avoid each other. Tension can start to build to the point where both members begin to lose productivity. A report released by CCP Global Human Capital estimated that $359 billion was lost annually because of workplace conflict that resulted in lost time and productivity. There does need to be some care in how disagreements are handled.
You have to build a work environment where conflict can emerge in a healthy manner. Take the time to remember that conflict is constructive to a business, that it should be moderated, instead of shut down. As a leader, you must be compassionate to your employees about their conflict. Otherwise, you may come off as harsh or unhelpful.
At first, when conflict does arise, as a manager you may be uneasy, or uncomfortable. You may believe that you aren’t being a very good leader because you are letting the disagreements occur on your team. As long as you empathise with your team members, set expectations beforehand, and above all else listen to your team the arguments won’t get out of hand. Creating an environment that encourages constructive critique can be a really important aspect of adaptive leadership.
When you empathise with your team you will be able to understand their point of an argument better. Don’t just shut them down because they get passionate or animated, or where they come from doesn’t make sense with your world-view. When you take the time to understand your team members point of view you will be able to understand where their emotions are coming from, and work through their reasoning better. Don’t just utilize this skillset yourself, ensure that each member of your team can do the same thing. As a leader it can be hard to hear constructive criticism of your own ideas and approaches, particularly of your leadership style, but it is fundamental to leading a team well and continuing to improve your leadership style and practice. When your entire team can empathise with each other authentically and understand different viewpoints and perspectives, they will be able to handle conflict much more efficiently.
Creating a culture of constructive criticism and challenge can be hard at the beginning as it requires a lot of mutual respect. One way to do this is to set up an approach where you as the leader speak last – if you’re like me then this requires a huge amount of self-control. Instead of making the first suggestion to a problem have your group talk it out and hear what they have to say first. When you do that, you are eliminating bias that could have occurred if you had spoken first and set a specific tone or direction for the discussion. When disagreements come up, open the dialogue to the entire team, encourage exploration of the tension or diversity of viewpoints and try to find positives to pull from the discussion from the different viewpoints. Everyone should have an opportunity to discuss their points or be able to ask something of another. Your team must be careful to avoid interrupting each other, and this goes for you too – if it takes a visual aide like a talking stick to signal who has permission to speak, then go get a talking stick!
Finally, be ready to set expectations on how conflict is addressed in the office. Hold everyone accountable, including yourself. Have everyone agree on those expectations, and make sure no one has any questions. Moving forward you can always refer back to those expectations if something doesn’t follow the set standards. You will be able to better resolve issues when you have something that you can refer to.
Conflict shouldn’t be a scary topic, instead, have open discussions about it with your team and encourage constructive criticism and challenge as part of a quality improvement and learning and reflection culture. You have to model this yourself and be open to what you might learn from others views and perceptions of your work. The potential for gains are huge, so try it out and see what ideas are lurking beneath the surface, you might be pleasantly surprised.