Are you or your team afraid of conflict? Many people are. People avoid conflict like a bad virus, feeling uncomfortable when things get difficult, fearing that addressing issues will create more issues or even escalate the conflict.
But conflict doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Conflict and tensions between people are common, as we all have different opinions, which is technically what conflict is – a difference of opinion. Nothing more, nothing less. Just because we look differently at something doesn’t mean we have to create tensions or full-blown “work wars” with others.
When carefully managed, conflicting opinions can be the source of healthy debates, great innovation and needed change, leading to even better results.
Most teams will experience conflict and tension regularly. Sometimes it’s in an open, argumentative way and sometimes in a passive aggressive way. The latter is where you see everyone nodding while in the meeting or appearing to agree but once outside, people argue behind each other’s backs and can do the opposite of what has been agreed. They then don’t achieve what they set out to do, together. Whenever this happens, productivity is affected as time is wasted on the conflict – this ultimately impacts the bottom line.
- Lack of communication
- Interpersonal tension and personal differences
- Virtual teams
- Conflicting goals in a matrix environment
- Competitive (non-constructive) behaviour
Let’s look at some solutions to overcome success destroying “work wars”– and how to make different opinions into something productive.
Welcome it - he 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?
Improve communication - Conflict and tension is often the result of lack of communication, of incorrect and unnecessary assumptions. If you’re the leader, communicate openly with your team at regular intervals. If you are a member of the team, speak up and communicate, do your bit for the team to create the right atmosphere.
Encourage open-mindedness - Ask questions. This is a key part of communication, to ask good questions, hence deepening awareness and understanding. Take an interest in each other’s strategies and plans and ask questions about the approach. Just questions, not judgments. It may seem like a small difference, but it makes all the difference
Assume positive intent - By doing so, you open up to the other person. You look for the positive, the possible connections to what you are doing. If someone is competitive for example; see the positive intent behind that rather than going into a competitive mode yourself. Use questions to explore the other person’s positive intent, what they are trying to achieve and how that links to your objectives. There’s always a link, if you choose to look for it.
Understand others' perspective - Imagine that you are in their shoes, what would it be like for them? Make yourself see things from others points of view.
Increase healthy debate - Set some ground rules to allow for healthy debate. Spell out the obvious and give permission for opposite views. All of this leads to better results for all.
Connect goals - If there is competitive behaviour in your team, then having connected goals will radically reduce that behaviour. If each team member is goaled not just on his/her individual performance but also the performance of the team overall, then it brings out collaborative behaviour instead. If you are a team member, look/ask for the alignment in goals yourself, don’t wait to be told.
Whatever approach you take, think carefully about how you communicate. Think about what you say and how you say it when your opinion differs from somebody else’s. There’s a difference between saying “What do you mean by that?!” and saying ”That’s really interesting, I hadn’t thought about it quite like that. Tell me more about it.”
Workplace conflict can be a good thing, a very good thing even, and should definitely not be feared but addressed. Managing team conflict is everyone’s responsibility. 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.
By Mandy Flint and Elisabet Vinberg Hearn, authors of 'Leading Teams - 10 Challenges: 10 Solutions', published by FT Publishing