When did the term ‘conflict’ get such a bad name? In my work with teams over the last 25 years all around the world, I have never found a high performing team that did not have moments when team members disagreed, debated, or argued. These teams all had a healthy respect for the value of not only having differences of opinions or perspectives, but for having learned how to manage themselves as they worked through the discord or tensions precipitated by their disputes. High performing teams have a high degree of emotional intelligence and recognize that they must go through a process of learning how to first listen to and understand diverging points of view before they can evaluate them and arrive at a converging consensus. Conflict, rather than being an enemy of collaboration, is, in fact, a necessary requirement for productive and successful collaboration.
In a 2005 Harvard Business Review article (1), authors Jeff Weiss and Jonathan Hughes, found that organizational efforts to improve collaboration often failed because leaders overlooked the root cause of the problem – conflict. Whenever people work together to achieve a goal, conflict is inevitable. The key becomes managing it in a way that brings out its good aspects and reduces its harmful ones. When conflict is managed well creativity can be enhanced because ideas are more rigorously debated. One idea leads to another and the quality of the options is vetted thus leading to better decisions.
What are some key strategies for managing conflict in group or team settings:
1. Create a climate where people feel comfortable openly and honestly discussing issues. To create the right climate it is essential to establish trust, work together closely, and manage emotions.
When trust is low, people hold back and fail to discuss issues openly. While this may be understandable, it cuts down on the team’s ability to solve problems. While trust is essential it cannot be mandated, it must be earned. One step team leaders can take is to speak openly about issues. This requires making themselves vulnerable by talking openly about how they think and feel about matters. When team members believe they can share openly without fear of reprisal, they will be more willing to address conflicts.
When people work together as a high performing team-sharing information, looking at alternative courses of action and making decisions together, they learn to give others on the team the benefit of the doubt when conflicts arise. Leaders can foster this by making sure they keep all team members in the “information loop.” They can seek all team members’ inputs when developing approaches for resolving issues. When people feel others are working for the benefit of the team more than for their own personal interests, then they will be more willing to give others the benefit of the doubt and find out what is happening before getting angry and shutting down communications.
Managing the emotional climate of the team is also essential to maintain the right climate to address conflict. Negative conflict emotions can spread rapidly among team members. Leaders need to be aware of the emotional “temperature” of the team and address issues early on. Destructive conflict can get out of control quickly so early intervention is the key.
2. Use constructive communication techniques to keep their conflict conversations moving in a way to facilitate collaboration.
When people are asked whether they talk more or less in conflict situations, they almost always say less. When asked whether this helps resolve conflict, they laugh and admit it does not. When conflict arises and communication has slowed down, effective leaders make sure to reach out to encourage people to start talking again.
Conflict communication consists of talking and listening. In many ways listening is the more important of the two. A couple of behaviors typify good listening. The first is perspective taking which involves trying to see things from the other person’s point of view – “walking in their shoes.” By trying to do this, you can learn new things about a conflict that may prove helpful in resolving it.
The second technique is called listening for understanding. This involves hearing what the other person has to say whether you agree with it or not. Most of us listen to respond, we hear the other person’s words but at the same time judge whether they are right or wrong so we can correct the other person when we get a chance to speak. This type of listening causes us to miss many important points and it generally frustrates the other person. When you listen carefully though it has the opposite effect, the other person will usually calm down and you will pick up ideas that can help lead to solutions that meet all parties’ needs and improve the quality of your collaboration.
Conflict is a natural part of life. People recognize this but are often afraid to address it. When that happens collaboration is hampered because communications wither. To achieve optimal collaboration people need to be able to explore issues and debate points in a constructive manner. By managing conflict effectively, collaboration can be enhanced and its promise fulfilled.
(1) Weiss, J. and Hughes, J. “Want Collaboration? Accept-and Actively Manage-Conflict.” Harvard Business Review, March, 2005.
This blog was co-written with Craig Runde, Director of Center for Conflict Dynamics at Eckerd College.