How to turn Team Conflict Into Something Positive

Beth Miller |

Everything starts off right. Your team is working smoothly and getting along and then it happens. One person disagrees with another or you have to make a decision that your team members aren’t happy about.

And, then again, maybe your employees in your organization always get along. Constant agreement is not always healthy; conflict should happen, and it’s actually a good thing.

Sure, it can be stressful and confusing, but good leaders know that change is inevitable; it is a part of everyday life, both personally and professionally.

So, why is conflict within a team a good thing? Because it shows that people are sharing diverse ideas, values, and points of view. I’ve seen a lot of teams in conflict during my career and as an executive coach, and I know there are good ways to manage and resolve conflicts that will make your team better in the end.

“In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity” —Albert Einstein

Finding the opportunity during conflict

Healthy conflict is open and fair and keeps the other person or persons whole, Howard Guttman, author of When Goliaths Clash: Managing Executive Conflict to Build a More Dynamic Organization, says. He believes that managing conflict is the key to leadership success.

Some of his tips for leaders managing conflict are:

  • Get your team strategically aligned on business goals and clarify individual roles.
  • Establish protocols and processes for resolving conflict.
  • Help your team members depersonalize conflict and treat it as a business issue, don’t focus on the person rather the actions.

Mark Gerzon, mediation expert and author of Leading Through Conflict: How Successful Leaders Transform Differences into Opportunities, says that today’s leaders must become “mediators,” as he calls them. The mediator sees and acts for the good of all. This requires a mediator to step out of her shoes and be attentive to potential biases that can derail a mediator.

The other two types of leaders are demagogues and managers—both of which you want to stay away from if you want to be a successful leader. The demagogue rules through fear and exploits conflict, while the manager views the world from a single perspective, which doesn’t work in today’s world.

It’s easy for leaders to learn more about organizational conflict and how to deal with it, rather than outsourcing problems all the time. Another mistake companies often make is being passive-aggressive with conflict, which is how companies lose their edge.

Conflict can be present in varying degrees from hot to cool.  When conflict has a lot of intensity, a leader’s role is to cool down the conflict and if a team consistently lacks conflict the leader needs to stir it to the surface so innovation and opportunity can occur.

Two additional tips from Gerzon are:

  1. Use conscious conversation. During conflict nobody is asking questions because everyone assumes they are right. A good leader asks open-ended questions.
  2. Help people gain integral vision. Help team members see the whole company, so they aren’t only thinking of themselves or their department.

These two tips I have found to be great techniques for team leadership. So often leaders use poor questions that are closed ended and don’t invoke conversation and an exchange of ideas. 

Leading through conflict

Simple communication is at the heart of conflict resolution. Putting the process off, can cause conflict to intensify and make it more difficult to resolve. Once you know conflict exists take these steps:

  1. Schedule time to talk about the conflict in a non-threatening environment with the parties involved.
  2. As leader define the rules of engagement during the meeting. Make sure to emphasize that the discussion should not be about the other person or people but about the specific actions or behaviors the person has observed and the impact they have had on the receiving person.
  3. Allow each person to talk about their perspective and remind them of the rules of engagement if they start to stray off course.
  4. Brainstorm together to develop ways to solve the conflict.
  5. Negotiate and come to solution and get each person to commit to the solution.
  6. Write the solution down and implement immediately.
  7. Schedule a follow-up time to make sure the solution is working.

Constructive conflict resolution is crucial to the future of organizations. If this topic is of interest, you may also want to read my tips for leading teams through change.

Think about the last time you dealt with conflict at work. Are there any things you should have done differently that would have brought your team to a higher level of performance?

Photo Credit: Flickr user markusthorsen

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Beth Miller

Beth Miller

Beth Armknecht Miller’s passion for learning, and dedication to helping others, are strands woven throughout her distinguished career, which continue to guide her work with Executive Velocity, a top talent and leadership development advisory firm. As a trusted executive consultant, Vistage Chair, and committed volunteer, Beth holds herself to a rigorous standard of excellence, and she encourages her clients to do the same when pursuing their goals.

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