When Heads Collide: How to Make Conflict Productive at Work

 "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 Hefferna

We frequently weigh in on our blog and in our resources about the importance of 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. This idea is brought to life in team conversations with our "beach ball" model. But what can you do as a leader when perspectives collide, causing friction between team members?

A natural tendency for many of us is to avoid conflict, but doing so comes at a huge cost. When we're afraid to engage in conflict, we stay silent. Conversations don't happen. And when there is no open exchange of thoughts and feelings, innovation suffers, we don't get our needs met, and our relationships can't flourish.

It's a common fear that engaging in conflict will end a relationship. The reality is that if we're committed to finding a resolution, conflict can actually 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 invite others to fully express their perspectives—with you and the rest of the team—even if some initial friction results.

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."

Conflict can be productive, and we can find gold in its resolution. However, we want to make sure we're producing the following outcomes:

1. Making decisions effectively.
2. Maintaining (or reestablishing) a sense of team unity during the decision-making process.
3. Addressing any tension that may arise during and after heads have collided.

If conflict escalates and strong emotions become involved such as rage or contempt, it can lead people involved to feel unsafe, which will naturally inhibit innovation and be a lot harder to repair. It's important for leadership to be aware of the social dynamics within their teams and be ready to step in if a disagreement does begin to escalate.

Here's how to effectively manage conflict in the moment during team collaboration:

1. Show curiosity and respect for even the most oddball 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. Listen with curiosity. 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. When respect is given, tension is diffused.

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

2. 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 objective data to use as a benchmark for potential decisions can help determine which ideas have the most merit for the final decision, and provides an effective way to reach this final decision without being dismissive of individual ideas.

3. Own the decision.

Understanding that you (and perhaps other leaders within your organization) own the final decision is an important precursor to team collaboration. Without this sense of ownership, the decision would be left to the butting heads of the team, which is both inefficient and unproductive. 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.

4. Address lingering emotions with follow-up conversations.

The last and probably most important tip is to address any emotions that may linger 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. This lets your team know that you care about how they feel. 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.

As included in our 2018 predictions, we anticipate ongoing discord will be present in the workplace, specifically as it relates to identity politics. For additional insight on navigating these types of conflicts, read our recent blog post here from Chris Douglas, Fierce EVP of International Expansion & Learning.

Leaders, Identify Your Weakest Employee Tie
Navigating Identity Politics: Insight for Leaders

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