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The Art of Constructive Conflict: Navigating Disagreements for Growth
What's your general feeling toward conflict? Does it scare you? Do you avoid it at all costs?
If so – you're certainly not alone. I think it's pretty much hardwired in all of us to try and stay away from uncomfortable conversations. But in the workplace and among your employees, I'm learning that conflict offers an incredible opportunity to grow.
Of course, that's only if we navigate it correctly... which we usually do not. Research from the Myers-Briggs organization tells us that a quarter of employees feel their managers handle conflict poorly.
I hear you asking: how can we make sure that our team's conflict is constructive? If most of us are doing it wrong, how can we turn the tables and make good from bad?
I'm excited to dig into this topic and learn how to foster healthy, constructive conflict resolution. Let's talk about it.
Defining and Visualizing Conflict
As children, conflict looks pretty black-and-white. A kid throws a stick at us and calls us ugly. We retaliate with a punch and some choice words. That's conflict – simple, straightforward, and usually destructive but short-lived.
Grow into adolescence and adulthood, and we soon see just how complex our battles can become. Insidious comments with the intention to break someone down. Ideas and beliefs that clash without a resolution in sight. And the lure of passive aggression, often with far-reaching consequences.
In our workplaces and startups, we see conflict play out in many ways – but I've broken them up into subsections (based on this Harvard article) just to give us all an idea of what we're dealing with here.
Here, we see disagreements over ideas, responsibilities, and actions between employees or departments.
At first, this category seems pretty surface-level. Someone gets upset because their teammate is chosen for the overseas trip. An employee is frustrated about their role in a project (why do I get all the data entry work?). There's a disagreement over the budget for a new initiative.
Yes, these are surface-level, and the issues themselves can be resolved fairly easily. But what about the root causes? If you dig deeper, there are often interpersonal tensions causing these 'superficial' problems. Rivalries, jealousies, favoritism, or unbalanced workloads will quickly manifest as these task-related arguments.
This is the one that makes us all feel uncomfortable. It's when we start talking about emotions and feelings, which can be hard to navigate in a business context.
Relational conflict might include bullying, harassment, or discrimination from someone higher up in the organization – but it also applies to other issues like gossiping between colleagues or feeling sidelined or excluded from meetings and projects.
A conflict in relationships can even come down to simple things, like slight personality clashes or miscommunication. It can all contribute to a negative environment, and it's especially destructive when we don't address it.
Have you ever had two employees you'd consider polar opposites? Their values and beliefs are entirely different. In terms of goals, they're like cheese and chalk.
This is where we potentially see value conflict arise. It's the brutal clash of core values – those beliefs we won't budge on and believe in with our entire beings.
There's no real reason for topics like spiritual beliefs or political opinions to come up in the office, but when they do, they can quickly lead to some super awkward moments. Value-based clashes actually cause half of all conflicts at work.
I'm picturing most of you nodding along to these examples. The reality is that managers spend an average of four hours per week dealing with conflict. If you're reading this, you've probably navigated at least one of these issues in the past.
So, what's the real impact of all of this conflict?
Why Conflict Needs a Resolution
According to a study of HR professionals released in 2020, the consequences of workplace conflict are pretty dire. This doesn't surprise me; whenever I'm dealing with some sort of tension, it takes an enormous toll on my mental health.
The results showed that unresolved conflict led to:
Poor performance and productivity compared to normal levels
A loss of productive time
Stress increase above normal levels
Lessened ability to reach organizational goals
It's hard enough to run a profitable and productive business without having to worry about your employees' morale. But if we don't address conflict – especially the underlying issues causing it – we can see our businesses suffer. I've seen it happen too many times.
Do Conflicted Employees Leave?
Another concern CEOs often have with conflict is that it'll drive employees away. It would make sense, considering that tension-filled workplaces are miserable... but here's the thing: only five percent of employees resign due to conflict.
That means 95 percent of unhappy employees stay in their companies despite the issues. The same study found that 40 percent of those employees were less motivated and even more reported being stressed.
What does this mean for you? It means you need to be incredibly vigilant about the energy and the tensions circulating in your workplace. Aside from the fact that we should be looking after the well-being of everyone in our businesses – an employee who stays on after being upset (or after causing an upset) is unlikely to be a productive one.
Either way, it's safe to say that conflict in the workplace is inevitable. So are the consequences, and so is the need to address it.
Fostering a Conflict Management Culture
“Conflict isn’t bad for organizations: it’s fundamental to them.” - Liane Davey, for Fast Company
If you can make healthy conflict management the default for your entire team, incredible things can come from your arguments. Let's break down my top strategies for constructive conflict.
1. Foster Collaboration
Good news: research shows that most of us naturally lean toward healthy conflict management. Over 59 percent of professionals gravitate toward collaboration – a style where all parties work together to reach the best conclusion for everyone involved.
How can you make collaboration the default in conflict resolution? By encouraging collaboration at every opportunity, whether you're dealing with conflict or not.
It's 2023, and we're well aware that collaboration is essential for success in any business. We've debunked managerial and informational silos. We're well-versed in the benefits of 1:1 meetings and regular team check-ins.
Collaboration isn't just something we turn on in the face of disagreement; it should be a way of life for our teams and organizations. Make collaboration the default in your company, and chances are, your team will be much more comfortable collaborating to resolve their disagreements.
2. Dig Deeper
Did you ever watch that episode of the office where Michael Scott tries to settle an argument between Angela and Oscar? He goes by the book, moving through each stage of conflict resolution (lose-lose, lose-win, win-win, win-win-win... it's a mess).
If you've seen the episode, you know his solution was the epitome of Band-Aid. But your solutions don't have to be as superficial (or as silly) – you just need to take the opportunity to dig deeper.
Let's use my example of the overseas conference from earlier.
If I'm mediating the dispute, a quick fix would be to ask what the problem is ("I wasn't chosen for the conference, but I've done just as much work as them..."), explain the process for choosing who attends ("We choose based on performance, and we use a rubric..."), and then move on to the next problem.
But if I really want to get to the bottom of it, I need to go deeper. What's causing this person's frustration? Do they feel like their work is undervalued? Are they feeling left out or excluded from other decisions in the team?
These questions can be uncomfortable – but if you don't ask them, you'll never find out what's really going on. I don't recommend holding one session and then calling it a day. You need to sit down with each person involved and get to the bottom of their gripes.
3. Turn Disputes Into Improvements
This particular strategy is going to be specific to a certain type of conflict, but it's a type that comes up a lot: Task Conflict. As I explained earlier, these are issues related to ideas, responsibilities, and actions between employees or departments.
Say, for instance, an employee approaches you and complains that their teammate is consistently slacking on client briefs. They're tired of picking up their slack and feel like the other person isn't pulling their weight.
It may be that your employee is truly slacking off – but there's a high chance that your systems are causing the issue. Maybe your process isn't clear enough, or there's too much ambiguity in the way your client briefs are set out.
In these instances, you can a) look at data to see if there's an issue with interpreting briefs across the board and b) speak to the 'slacker' in question to see if they're having any issues.
Yes, you could've just issued a warning to the employee being complained about – but in doing so, you missed an opportunity to improve your systems.
4. Model Constructive Conflict
As the manager or CEO, you're in a unique position to model the change you want to see. Everything you do will trickle down to your team.
At every opportunity, model constructive conflict by:
Turning arguments into learning opportunities. If an employee disagrees with your management style, for instance, don't rule with a rod of iron. Ask the employee to explain where they're coming from and what they'd do differently. In response, explain your position and how it ties into the company's overall mission. You've just shown that employee you're willing to learn and listen rather than argue.
Leading with empathy. Every conversation should start from a place of understanding and respect. Ask questions about how the employee is feeling, why they feel that way, and what their goals are for the situation.
Proactively asking for outside opinions. Don't wait for actual conflict to arise before you model this. Ask your team for their opinions and ideas on a regular basis, especially when it comes to important decisions.
Encouraging healthy debate. You need to foster an environment where people feel comfortable disagreeing without fear of repercussions. This is a delicate balance, but it's essential if you want your employees to speak up about issues as soon as they arise.
It's easy to underestimate the impact you have as a leader. It took me ages to realize just how much my actions matter – but you truly have the power to shape a healthy culture in your organization, and it starts with your actions.
5. Deal With Toxicity
Reality check – constructive conflict can't fix toxic people. If you've got self-centered, pessimistic, mean-spirited, or overly competitive employees, you'll notice their impact pretty quickly. Don't wait around for these people to change because you'll end up with a negative culture and a fractured team.
Everyone deserves a chance, but if toxicity persists after you've taken the time to talk it through, it's time for serious conversations and disciplinary action. Going easy on destructive team members does not send the right message to your employees who are genuinely giving their all.
Your best bet is to tackle negative energy before it seeps into everything you’ve worked so hard to build. Your genuine and hardworking employees deserve to be protected from negativity and hostility, and it’s your responsibility to maintain the peace.
(It’s also in your best interest!)
Constructive Conflict: The Bottom Line
Conflict isn't just a necessary evil. With the right mindset and strategies, it can be an incredible opportunity to grow and learn as a team – and when done correctly, it can even bring out your most creative solutions.
Have you thought about conflict as a constructive opportunity before? Looking at your company culture, does it foster constructive conflict? Or are there areas where you could step up your game?
I know I've just barely scratched the surface with this topic, and I'm excited to dig deeper in future newsletters! Let me know your thoughts in the comments below or reply to this email – I'm keen to hear your thoughts.
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