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Should Leaders Encourage Teams to Address Conflict?

Conflicts arise due to a variety of reasons, including personality clashes, poor communication, tight deadlines, or cultural differences. In the workplace today, the number of people dealing with conflict often, very often, or all the time has increased to over a third (36%), compared to 29% in a 2008 study from The Myers-Briggs Company.

While conflict can be a valuable tool for growth and development, I've seen two key challenges facing leaders and teams. First is that many people are conflict adverse. This is commonly a result of never having learned how to address conflict in a healthy manner. The second challenge is when the culture suppresses disagreement. Where I live, there’s a term called "Midwest Nice”. It is aligned with the cultural belief that says, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all”. These two challenges make communication difficult when conflict and disagreements arise.

As a leader, encouraging teams to address conflict can be a challenging task. However, it can also produce positive benefits. In this blog post, I’ll discuss the benefits plus provide steps that leaders and teams can take to address conflict.

Benefits of Addressing Conflict

Encourages Diverse Perspectives

When teams engage in conflict, it often leads to the expression of different opinions, ideas, and perspectives. These differences can be valuable to the team's overall decision-making process as they offer a more comprehensive view of the problem at hand. When team members feel comfortable expressing their thoughts and opinions, it can lead to a more inclusive environment, which in turn leads to better decision-making.

Promotes Creativity and Innovation

Conflict can also promote creativity and innovation within teams. When team members are encouraged to challenge existing ideas and propose new ones, it can spark creative thinking and generate new solutions. In this way, conflict can act as a catalyst for change and progress. Teams that are willing to engage in conflict are more likely to come up with innovative solutions to complex problems.

Fosters Learning and Growth

Conflict can be an opportunity for learning and growth. When team members engage in conflict, they are forced to think critically and consider other perspectives. This can lead to a deeper understanding of the problem and a more effective solution. Additionally, team members can learn from one another's experiences and perspectives, leading to personal and professional growth.

Builds Trust and Respect

Teams that are willing to engage in conflict are more likely to build trust and respect among team members. When team members feel comfortable expressing their thoughts and opinions, it can lead to more open and honest communication. When conflicts are managed constructively, it can lead to a deeper understanding of each other's strengths and weaknesses, ultimately leading to stronger working relationships.

Steps Leaders Can Take

Establish a culture that values diverse perspectives

Leaders must establish a culture that values diverse perspectives and encourages open communication. When team members feel safe to express their thoughts and ideas, it leads to a more inclusive environment where constructive conflict can occur. Leaders can encourage this culture by empathizing and actively listening to team members' input, acknowledging their ideas, and valuing their contributions.

Set clear expectations for constructive conflict resolution

Leaders should set clear expectations for how conflicts should be resolved within the team. This includes guidelines for respectful communication, active listening, and finding mutually beneficial solutions. Leaders should also provide training and resources to support these expectations.

Mediate conflicts when necessary

As a leader, it is essential to mediate conflicts when necessary. This includes stepping in when conflicts become too heated or when team members are not able to resolve the conflict on their own. Leaders can help guide the conversation toward a constructive resolution by asking open-ended questions, clarifying misunderstandings, and finding common ground.

Celebrate successful conflict resolution

Leaders should celebrate successful conflict resolution within the team. Recognizing team members' efforts to resolve conflicts constructively reinforces the value of diverse perspectives, active listening, and empathy. It also creates a positive team culture where constructive conflict is seen as an opportunity for growth and development.

Steps Teams Can Take

Identify the source of the conflict

The first step in addressing a conflict is to identify the source of the problem. This can be done by gathering input from all team members involved in the conflict. Once the source of the conflict is identified, team members can work together to find a solution.

Practice active listening

Active listening is a critical component of constructive conflict resolution. Team members should listen actively to one another's perspectives and try to understand their points of view. This creates a safe environment where everyone feels heard and understood.

Use "I" statements instead of "You" statements

When team members use "you" statements, it can come across as blaming and accusatory, which can escalate the conflict. Instead, using "I" statements can help de-escalate the situation and encourage a more constructive conversation. For example, "I feel frustrated when we miss our project deadlines" instead of "You never deliver on time."

Find common ground

When team members are in conflict, it can be challenging to find common ground. However, finding common ground can help move the conversation toward a constructive resolution. Team members should focus on the shared goals and values that brought them together and work to find a solution that aligns with these shared objectives.

Brainstorm potential solutions

Once the source of the conflict is identified and common ground is established, team members can brainstorm potential solutions to the problem. It is essential to encourage an open and collaborative environment where all team members feel comfortable contributing their ideas.

Agree on a solution and follow up

After brainstorming potential solutions, team members should agree on a solution that works for everyone involved in the conflict. It is essential to follow up on the solution and ensure that it is implemented effectively. Team members should also reflect on what they have learned from the conflict and how they can prevent similar situations from arising in the future.

It's important to emphasize that conflict helps teams improve their performance and outcomes. That means everyone on the team must learn how to manage conflict and leaders must foster a safe environment where conflicts can be resolved constructively. It’s time to move beyond the challenges of old beliefs and lack of know-how and turn how you manage conflict into a strength.

Questions to Consider

  • What have I been taught about managing conflict that really doesn't work?

  • Who do I know that manages conflict well?

  • Where in our organization does avoiding conflict hurt us most?

New Research: Time Spent on Workplace Conflict Has Doubled Since 2008

For additional ideas on conflict management, read "4 Essential Conflict Management Strategies for Leaders".


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