You are feeling it, too, of course. You get a weird feeling leading the team meeting or walking around the office, but you let those feelings pass and don’t grab onto them. Then you start hearing gossip and grumbling, and one or two people sharing the same concern with you. Now it’s time to pay attention. Do not assume it’s a minor interpersonal tiff that will go away on its own, or you may find yourself in the midst of a flurry of frustrated employees and a situation that’s escalating.
Conflict is a given; the outcomes of that conflict are a choice.
We know that when a group gathers around a common purpose, conflict will occur at some point or another. However, well-managed conflict can be constructive and creative rather than destructive and downward-spiraling. In fact, the most positive thing leadership can do for their organization is to embrace conflict and harness its power as a creative force for productivity and innovation.
High-performing teams know how to bounce new ideas off each other, receive and give honest feedback graciously, resolve their own miscommunications and annoyances competently, and join creative forces to bring innovation and greater profitability to their organization. Here are three steps to building a culture of constructive conflict that will not only mitigate situations like the ones I described but also improve the performance of your teams.
1. Start with your leadership mindset.
Acknowledge that conflict run amok will continue to destroy your team and eventually, your workplace. Do listen to that weird feeling, that voice inside that’s telling you something’s “off,” and act on it. If it turns out to be nothing, at least the parties will feel heard and all can move forward.
Normalize the presence of conflict for yourself and management, a different kind of ripple effect. Along with your executive team, begin to see where you can spot and head off minor conflicts through open communication. Also, look out for the opportunities that the power of constructive conflict can bring.
Lead the way with your own behavior by incorporating more of these elements into your team meetings, communications and policies:
• Trust: Expecting trust, trusting and being trustworthy
• Transparency: Engaging in genuinely open communication
• Respect: Honoring differences and other points of view
• Safety: Where people feel safe to express their opinion or dissent
2. Engage with your team.
Hold up these principles in every team meeting and interpersonal communication. Trust your peers and your team members to partner with you to make these changes. And remember, changing behaviors takes time, so be patient!
Normalize deep communication and conflict as a team tool. A key here is to educate your team on the power of positive conflict and how to be a strong team that can exchange ideas effectively, disagree healthily, hang out in that exciting creative tension zone, be productive, and get things done in a more effective way.
Hold a team meeting to set expectations on how you will have safe, inclusive conversations as a team, and what you will do when things go off the rails. Prompts like these help everyone participate:
• For this team to be the best it can be, what do we need to count on from each other?
• What is the best way to deliver feedback to you?
• If I am having a problem with you, what would you like me to do?
3. Systematize conflict competency in your organization.
Set out organizational policies and early intervention mechanisms to head off negative conflict issues. Your diversity and inclusion, discrimination, and sexual harassment policies have become more important than ever to secure a safe, healthy, happy workplace environment.
Include conflict-competency training in team-building and respectful discourse for your team and management. The return on investment on this investment is clear:
• Reduced likelihood of badly-handled conflict
• More effective, nimble and higher-performing teams
• Sparked creativity and innovation to help the organization grow and compete
• Enhanced employee engagement, satisfaction and retention
Shifting the ripple effect of unproductive conflict to a workplace culture that embraces the power of conflict will pay dividends, not only in mitigating disputes but also in higher employee engagement, performance and loyalty.