Conflict is not uncommon. Most people experience it every day with their friends and families, and, perhaps most frequently, with colleagues. Some of these conflicts are minor, like what time we’re going to hold a specific meeting, who will cover off on that dreaded data entry aspect of a project, or where to order lunch. Other moments tend to be more difficult, like holding a teammate accountable for a mistake, disagreeing over your team’s approach to a project, or delivering tough feedback. These conflicts can have severe repercussions for our team’s performance and happiness if we don’t learn to manage these moments thoughtfully.
The key is to promote and enforce healthy conflict. Healthy conflict addresses the issue at hand directly and constructively without disregarding or trivializing the needs of either party. From years of working closely with teams, we have come across many impactful strategies that teams use to engage in healthy conflict. What follows are two of the best.
Make People Feel Safe
A few years back, Google did a year-long study of their highest-performing teams. What they found was intriguing. The single most significant factor to team success was not I.Q., leadership personality, or team structure—it was psychological safety. Psychological safety is created when people feel comfortable taking risks and don’t fear rejection or ridicule. Teams that feel psychologically safe are better equipped to hear from everyone and engage in healthy conflicts because people don’t think they need to be “right,” people aren’t afraid to speak up, and perspectives aren’t overlooked or rejected. Here are two ways you can begin cultivating psychological safety:
- Show concern for team members as people. You may not be inclined to ask a team member how they are doing, but if you get into the practice of checking in with your employees on a more personal level, you demonstrate your interest and concern in them as people. Taking this simple step can help team members feel more comfortable speaking up because they know you value their whole selves—not just their work product.
- Actively solicit questions. Before your team arrives at a decision, pause your meeting to ask for questions, explore different perspectives, and seek opinions that have not yet been voiced. Be sure to count slowly to 5 (or even 10) in your mind before moving on. Internal processors often need more time to formulate their thoughts before expressing them, so discipline yourself to pause and encourage input.
Turn Conflict Into Collaboration
More often than not, a conflict becomes unhealthy when someone’s emotions take over, and people become too lost in their own opinions and feelings to act considerately. When a conflict moves in this direction, one of the best things we can do as a leader is to steer the conversation away from conflict to collaboration. Here are a couple specific techniques to help:
- I.D. New Options. When your team is stuck between two options and is making no progress, try to work together to develop new possibilities. Getting the team to zoom out from the conflict at hand reminds everyone that the purpose of the moment is not to win the debate but to accomplish the bigger goal.
- Assign Thinking Hats. If you think your team is too combative, assign specific perspectives for the team to take on. We like to use DeBono’s thinking hats which invites decision-makers to explore decisions through a particular lens (e.g., facts, positive, negative, intuitive, creative, process). The assignment of roles ensures a more balanced forum for conflict by providing the team an opportunity to bring different vantage points to the topic.
From Insights to Action: Talk about these conflict strategies and techniques at your next team meeting and employ the ones that will boost your team’s performance and happiness.