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When Heads Collide: 5 Tips for Managing Conflict

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"If we aren't going to be afraid of conflict, we have to see it as thinking, and then we have to get really good at it." –Margaret Heffernan

Since January, we’ve focused our content heavily on creating more robust inclusion in the workplace. The main idea is this: inclusive cultures require collaboration and diversity of thought, where each team member has an equal opportunity to share their perspective. But what can you do as a leader when perspectives collide, causing friction between team members?

Starkly opposing views can potentially stagnate timelines and cause friction—especially when one or more people hold particularly passionate views about a topic or high-stakes decision. Conflict can be productive, but in its midst, we want to assure we're making decisions effectively, maintaining (or reestablishing) a sense of team unity during the decision-making process, and patching any tension that may arise during and after heads have collided.

A number of factors can cause friction between team members including bias, the desire to be right, opposing personal values, etc., and the reality is that disagreements don’t need to be personal. A Deloitte article titled “Diversity’s new frontier” makes a substantial point that helps distinguish the person from the idea: “Ideas either have merit and points of connection or they do not. Diversity of thought challenges managers to rethink conflict itself, shifting their perspective away from mitigating conflict’s negative effects and toward designing conflict that can push their teams to new levels of creativity and productivity.”

Here are five useful tips to keep in mind when friction arises during collaboration with your team:

Tip #1: Own the decision.

Understanding that you (and perhaps other leaders within your organization) own the final decision is an important precursor to team collaboration. As a leader, it’s necessary to fully take different perspectives into consideration and avoid “the illusion of inclusion.” However, at the end of the day, the decision is yours. Your team members may be pointing in different directions, but you’ll have to decide which direction will be the most beneficial for the entire company. Consensus is not an essential precursor to deciding—call the final shot to end lingering disagreements and keep with predetermined timelines.

Tip #2: Show respect for even the most outlandish ideas.

While not all ideas that are brought to the table will be part of a final decision, an inclusive culture doesn’t expect them to be. Sharing ideas often includes brainstorming, where creativity can flow freely and strong merit doesn’t have to be present before expressing an idea. Although respectful feedback or criticism of ideas may naturally arise among team members (which can be a productive part of the decision-making process), make sure to address and diffuse any criticism that becomes personal and is directed toward a person rather than an idea.

As a leader, also keep in mind that behind every idea or vision, no matter how unusual or unpopular, is a value to be understood.

Tip #3: Use data.

The numbers don’t lie. When several ideas are on the table, divert attention to what does (or doesn’t) support each idea. Depending on the topic or decision at hand, what do statistics show? What does company history data show? Having data to use as a benchmark against potential decisions can help determine which ideas have the most merit for the final decision.

Tip #4: Avoid avoidance.

A natural tendency for many of us is to avoid conflict, but conflict can strengthen relationships and lead to more innovation. The purpose of conflict management is not to avoid conflict but instead manage in such a way that disagreements can occur constructively. Disagreement and conflict can be healthy precursors to desirable results, so it’s important to grant team members the opportunity to fully express their perspectives—with you and the rest of the team—even if some initial friction results.

Tip #5: Address lingering emotions with follow-up conversations.

The last and most important tip is to address any emotions that may be present after an incident. Whether it was a small disagreement or a heated argument, it’s important to know where each team member stands after it has occurred. Even if the matter at hand was resolved during the meeting, follow-ups address any unresolved issues that could potentially have a negative impact on workplace culture and environment. Commit to having either inclusive group or one-on-one conversations to discuss behavior and emotion, both yours and theirs, to create a feeling of completion and reestablish a sense of team unity.

What are your experiences managing workplace conflict? Share your thoughts with us.

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