Conflict and tension that don’t get properly resolved create stress, thereby impacting both mental/emotional and physical health. For that reason, conflict management is a key skill for both leaders and team members that want to be part of a healthy, productive, energising team experience. In fact, we should call this conflict leadership not just management. All of us need to lead through conflict. Leadership after all, is the act of influencing others and we all need to influence each other to constructively resolve conflict. It’s everyone’s responsibility.
Conflict and tension can have many different causes and can play itself out in many varied forms. Sometimes it can be an open, argumentative conflict and sometimes it can be in a passive aggressive form, where it’s less obvious and therefore more difficult to address.
These are the most common reasons for conflict that we regularly observe in teams:
Lack of effective communication
When there is not enough information, people will fill in the gaps and make information up, even if they are not aware of making it up. The mind is quick to piece together bits of data, no matter how small, and make up its own story, sometimes creating something (conflict) out of nothing. Hence rumours are created and suspicion grows which is detrimental to teamwork. People often waste time thinking about the conflict and talking to others about it and thus creating more tension. All of this of course impacts the bottom line.
Everyone is unique and it’s important to understand how that creates differences in teams. If a person doesn’t understand another team member and his/her personal needs and values, they look at his/her opinions and behaviours as flawed as they don’t match the person’s own view.
If team members have differing goals, ie goals that for some reason don’t support each other, then their priorities will differ and they will not see the importance of the other person’s task. This can create conflict or at least tension. This is particularly prevalent in a matrix environment.
Competitive behaviours can be the result of factors such as unclear roles, overlapping responsibilities and people feeling they need to prove themselves. Say for example, that a new person comes in to the team with a perceived seniority to the others, this can then create a sense of self doubt in the other team members.
The negative impact of conflict
If conflict and tension are not managed, or more importantly led, they erode trust and make people work on their own rather than co-operate. In really bad cases it also makes people work against each other, all of these are both stressful and unproductive. Considering how much time most people spend at work, this is not how they want to spend their time feeling, not to mention the productivity drain and cost implications.
Conflict is not a bad thing
It is simply a difference of opinion. An opinion in and of it self is neither good nor bad. It’s the interpretation that we make that can create a negative sense of conflict.
Conflict arises from the idea that something is either right or wrong, which in turn means that when opinions differ someone is either right or wrong. When people think like that, they want to be right and then they no longer look for the potential value in the other person’s view. And if both parties want to be right, tension is then created by both of them not feeling listened to or valued – and the sense of tension and conflict grows.
Five strategies for healthy conflict resolution
If carefully managed, conflict and tensions can be constructive as they can trigger healthy debates and help people think differently. Knowledge and awareness can grow, and innovation and results can flourish. Let’s look at five strategies for managing conflict in such a way that it becomes a powerful lever for teamwork.
1. Communicate, communicate, communicate
In order to fill in the communication gaps that others will otherwise fill with their own assumptions, there can never be too much communication. Communicate even when you have nothing to say, especially in times of change, as team members may otherwise think you are hiding information and start worrying about that.
2. Assume positive intent
Everyone is different and people usually do the best they can and rarely intend to annoy others or create conflict. Just because someone doesn’t think or feel like you, they don’t have to be wrong. So if you get annoyed with someone, assume that they are acting with positive intention and notice the difference in your own reaction. Take a moment and think about what difference it would make if we all assumed positive intent. It feels different, right?
3. Connect team members’ goals
Make sure that team members’ individual goals are linked to each others’ and to the overall goals of the team. Great teamwork is dependent on it. With connected goals team members have a stake in each other’s success and are encouraged to work together to achieve results. Sometimes you may need to help people to the see the links between what they do and what their team members do and how they are dependent on each other. Make the links to goals explicit; don’t just implicitly expect team members to see them.
4. Let go of the need to be right
Ultimately this is about keeping an open mind. When you let go of the need to be right, you can consider an opposed view without a sense of tension. And considering the general speed of change, what was “right” yesterday may not be “right” anymore, it may be outdated. Hold the mirror up and ask yourself if you are hanging onto the need to be right? Leaders beware - if it’s not already, the “need to be right” will very soon be an outdated way of behaving.
5. Voice disagreement in a good way
Healthy debate can be created if you voice disagreement in a good way. One simple way of doing this, is to avoid the word “but” and replace it with “and”. This builds on what the other person has said rather than disregarding it. Voicing the disagreement is the key, to just take that first step and talk about it – while assuming positive intent and looking for the right outcome, and of course letting go of the need to be right.
Behaviours are key when working with conflict, here are some additional behaviours that are critical when “leading conflict”:
- Be accepting (of self and others)
- Be curious
- Be respectful
Now, think of someone you know who always wants to be right. Just think of the impact that has on you! Imagine what it would be like if you can help them be curious and accepting, helping them to let go of the need to be right. It allows for others’ ideas to come in and perhaps to develop a greater idea/solution than would otherwise have been possible. That is when conflict gets healthy and creative, and good things happen.
Go on, give healthy conflict a chance!
By Mandy Flint and Elisabet Vinberg Hearn
Mandy Flint is an international expert on leading and developing teams. She is the CEO of Excellence in Leadership, a global transformation organisation.
Elisabet Vinberg Hearn
Elisabet is CEO of Think Solutions UK Ltd and Think Solutions AB in Sweden.