It’s a common misconception that ‘peaceful’ teams – ones where there are no overt conflicts – are successful teams. But in fact, the opposite is usually true. When colleagues don’t feel able to raise concerns with each other and shy away from conflict, it can breed resentment and undermine effective teamwork.
Patrick Lencioni names avoidance of conflict as the second of his Five Dysfunctions of a Team. And while leaders need to promote healthy conflict within the organisation at large, there’s also work to be done within the team. Here are a few of the ways you can normalise healthy and productive ways of dealing with daily conflicts in your team.
I’m not suggesting you pick fights every time someone forgets to refill the printer paper, or is two minutes late to a Zoom meeting. But you can help normalise the idea of healthy, productive conflict, and model how to do that yourself.
If someone complains to you about a co-worker not doing things correctly, don’t speak behind that person’s back; instead, suggest they bring it up at the next team meeting. If a quiet colleague seems unhappy but isn’t called on in a discussion, try to bring them in and ask if there’s anything else they’d like to talk about.
Combine praise and critical feedback
Another way to take the bite out of conflicts is combining feedback with praise. Your team should have open communication about what’s going right as well as areas to improve on, so be sure to bring up successes and give people credit for their work.
If you need to report to someone higher up, do the same thing. Let them know about your team’s successes, but also point out where there was conflict – and how the team resolved it and improved. This will demonstrate growth, adaptability, good teamwork and effective communication.
Stay solutions focused
When you work with the same people every day, it’s inevitable that some interpersonal issues will come up. While it’s important to be open about this, you also need to give it the proper weight, and remain solutions focused.
Conflict within a workplace is about finding the best solution to a problem as efficiently as possible. This won’t happen if conflict is avoided, but it’s not useful to allow name calling or insults – workplace conflict is not a playground argument. It should instead be a constructive dialogue that has respect for yourself and the others at its core.
Support the new approach both formally and informally
See if you can set up a regular opportunity for open conversations, such as monthly team check-in meetings. This will give people a clear opportunity to raise issues and time to think of solutions, rather than responding in the heat of the moment.
But also, make open conversations and conflict just a part of daily work. Perfect agreement and harmony isn’t possible, so really you need to choose between occasional uncomfortable conversations and insidious resentment and passive aggressiveness. Unsurprisingly, the first option is much healthier and more productive, and a very important skill as a leader is an ability to find common ground.
Ask for help
If you think a lack of healthy conflict is a real problem in your team, ask about getting some training or coaching. As Amy Edmondson emphasises in her book The Fearless Organization, feeling psychologically safe at work – able to bring up issues without fear of being blamed, dismissed or humiliated – is an ongoing process. You need to learn the necessary skills, then keep practising them every day.