Avoiding Team Conflict? Channel It into Something Productive Instead
Every team has conflict. It’s not always a knockdown, drag-out fight, but there is no avoiding it. The difference is that you can either intentionally manage it to lead to innovation and problem solving, or you can leave the conflict to fester and create a toxic work environment for your team. It seems like an easy decision when positioned that way.
In previous articles, we’ve discussed what Patrick Lencioni, author of the book “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team,” calls the “Conflict Continuum. In it, he describes two conflict dichotomies: On one end is “artificial harmony.” On this end is a false, surface-level paradise. People appear to be in harmony, but they are just pretending. They are going along to get along.
On the other end lays harsh, ill-intentioned conflict that results in blaming and personal attacks. Neither is desired, and both are toxic to your organization, leading to a lack of productivity and potentially lower employee retention rates.
What teams need to do to increase effectiveness is move closer to the center of the continuum.
Stop Avoiding Conflict and start addressing it
Conflict is natural, normal, and necessary. It is also impossible to eliminate and, when productively channeled, it leads to creative problem solving and innovation. As a former boss used to tell me, “full potential is never realized in a serene environment.”
When it comes to conflict, most of us adopt a fight or flight approach, choosing to avoid the conflict altogether or engage in destructive and often personal attacks. While open, nasty conflict may be less common, just because your team isn’t actively disagreeing doesn’t mean there is no conflict.
Resolving conflict. The mediators approach.
Professionals trained in mediation generally have one objective: Agreement. They don’t care what you agree to, as long as there is agreement.
Let’s say a customer gets into a dispute with a vendor, and the two entities end up in mediation. The goal of the mediator is to get the two parties to agree. The mediator doesn’t care what the two sides agree to, whether or not it is the best solution, or even a good solution – as long as they agree.
This is not the ideal approach when leading teams because the agreement may not be the best solution for the problem. It may only be a compromise to get a resolution. Many leaders (like mediators) try to resolve conflict with the same approach, but as a leader, you don’t want to resolve conflict but to productively channel it to develop a better solution.
Channeling conflict. A more constructive approach.
Just because everyone agrees does not mean it is a good solution. When two parties’ conflict, your options tend to be “A” or ‘B.” But what about “C, D, E, and F”? How will you ever get to the options if only two are presented. By challenging the “A” and “B” of conflict, you can work together to develop a better solution.
As leaders, we want healthy debate, dialog, and discussion around ideas and issues to get not just agreement but to channel it into being productive, leading to a new and better way of doing things.
Before you can channel conflict, you must create a safe space
To be fully productive, people need to feel listened to. They need to have the ability to brainstorm and come together naturally to participate in open discussions and learn about other ideas.
Leaders are responsible for creating an environment where it is safe for open and honest dialogue to take place. The aim is to transform conflict into a collaboration that combines the best ideas into an optimal solution.
As leaders, we must set the example by listening and asking questions. In an environment that makes space for dissention, the leader’s role is not to give the answer or even propose a potential solution but to solicit ideas from the team. We must admit we don’t have all the answers and then enter with the mindset of curiosity.
Exercises to create an open dialog
Creating a safe environment for conflict starts with trust. Trust that people are in a space where it is safe to share ideas, thoughts, and what they are thinking, where it is safe to disagree and ask questions. This is what Harvard Professor Amy Edmonson calls psychological safety.
L. David Marquet, author of the book “Leadership is Language,” uses a tool called dissent cards to help remove conflict bias and create an environment where people are willing to speak up. It’s a way to encourage a greater variety of opinions and increase the psychological safety needed for disagreement to occur productively within a group. A dissent card deck has ¾ black cards and ¼ red ones. Red cards require the holder to question the decision. Black cards are curiosity cards. They ask the holder to address the situation from a point of curiosity.
I find that the exercise encourages those who might not normally speak up to share their thoughts. It also reminds those who may naturally be more vocal and forceful to listen and be curious.
It is essential to give everyone in the room an opportunity to talk, selecting those with less formal authority to speak first. To prevent bias, the leader should enter the debate only at the end, after all other people have spoken.
As the leader, your tone should be one of curiosity, taking on the mindset to understand rather than respond. Remove your inclination to say what is on your mind, but instead ask questions to gain a more thorough understanding.
Once there has been robust dialogue and debate and a solution has been proposed, it is critical to ensure everyone is clear and willing to support the solution. One effective way to do this is by conducting a “Fist to Five” exercise. The Fist to Five technique is used to rapidly gain feedback on the level of agreement. The proposed solution is summarized, and then everyone in the room is asked to show their level of support for the proposed solution by holding up fingers, from 5 for wild enthusiasm to a clenched fist for vigorous opposition. When trust is low, and team members may be reluctant to respond until they see what others are doing, the poll can be conducted on slips of paper to keep the results private.
I used this exercise with clients where the meetings between plant management and corporate leadership often disintegrated into nasty, negative, toxic conflict. The objective was for plant management to find a better way to communicate their plans and results. After a solution was proposed, we conducted the Fist to Five exercises. There were eight people in the room, of which seven held up 3,4, or 5 fingers. The eighth presented a two. A singular two required us to discuss their concerns and ideas. The dissenting team member raised an issue that no one else had thought of and led to a more effective approach.
Where to go from here
Conflict is unavoidable. Personalities, egos, and experiences all come into play. Trust is essential for productive conflict. And productive conflict is the key to achieving optimal results. You can either learn to redirect it to create innovative solutions intentionally, or you can allow that conflict to become toxic.
The next step in your journey is to explore how our leadership and team development programs can help your organization build trust and move from unhealthy, destructive conflict to healthy, productive conflict that opens up new and better ways of doing things. Contact us at Action-Strategies-By-Design to discuss how we can make your team more productive.