As a leader, you know that silence can be deadly. When people in your organisation don’t feel able to bring issues up in a timely way, it can lead to stagnation and resentment. That’s why it’s so important to address fear of conflict, the second of Patrick Lencioni’s Five Dysfunctions of a Team.
I think Amy Edmondson’s idea of psychological safety, explained fully in her book The Fearless Organization, is key to changing that culture. So using that as our basis, let’s look at the questions every leader needs to be asking in order to promote a culture of healthy, effective conflict.
What underlies a fear of conflict?
Causing a conflict feels incredibly risky for many people. Perhaps they’re worried that it’ll affect their promotion prospects by making them seem ‘difficult’. Maybe they think conflict will undermine harmony in their team. Or they might think there’s no point in raising issues, as they won’t be listened to anyway.
That’s why psychological safety is so important. As Amy Edmondson puts it, the concept simply refers to a work environment where people “feel comfortable sharing concerns and mistakes without fear of embarrassment or retribution. They are confident they can speak up and won’t be humiliated, ignored or blamed.”
For the benefit of the organisation at large, people need to know it’s safe to speak up.
Can your team bring conflicts to you?
It’s important as a leader to ask yourself whether you’re approachable, appropriately vulnerable – in short, an actual person rather than just The Boss. It can be hard to find out how people see you, but it’s well worth putting in the effort.
Of course, you need to have clear boundaries in place. But it’s vital that people know they can approach you, through clear and appropriate channels, when there’s a real issue which needs your attention. And if you try to rule by fear, or hold yourself aloof, that won’t happen. Instead, the problems will be taken to the wrong people, or just be buried entirely – which will lead to bigger issues down the line.
How can you model healthy conflict?
One useful way to show people they can come to you with important conflicts is by showing them that you do that. Let your team know when you’ve had conflicts with others in leadership roles, and the useful results of those conflicts. It’s especially powerful to share the times you’ve been wrong, held yourself accountable, learned and improved.
If you’re asking people to take what feels like a risk by engaging in rather than avoiding conflict, you need to show them that you’re willing to take that risk too, with them and others.
Do you impose a solution, or let it occur naturally?
When you see conflict occurring, it’s only natural to want to resolve it. And as a leader, it’s likely that your word will be the final one. But it’s important to take a step back sometimes and let a solution emerge organically. Your team may surprise you by coming up with an inventive solution, or they might end up exactly where you would have recommended – but the process is also important here.
What systems need to be in place?
While your own actions are important, psychological safety should also be a clear part of the organisational structure. At one end of the scale that means having clear, safe procedures for serious complaints. At the other, it means ensuring there are venues for bringing up lower-level issues.
Having something like a monthly team check-in not only ensures problems don’t fester and become worse, but also helps avoid people reacting in the heat of the moment. Having those regular opportunities will also keep tensions lower, helping to minimise unproductive low-level conflicts.