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When Heads Collide: How to Make Conflict Productive at Work


True or false: Engaging in conflict will end a relationship. Believe it or not, the answer is false. Yes, it's a common fear, but the reality is that if we're committed to finding a resolution, conflict can strengthen a relationship and spur innovation.

A natural tendency for many of us is to avoid conflict and our 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.

Disagreement and conflict can be healthy precursors to achieving 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. The reality is that disagreements don't need to be personal.

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 being that inclusive cultures require collaboration and diversity of thought, where each team member has an equal opportunity to share their perspective.

A Deloitte article titled "DIVERSITY'S NEW FRONTIER" shares how conflict impacts this type of environment:

"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. That said, if its not managed appropriately, conflict escalates quickly. When strong emotions emerge, such as rage or contempt, it can lead people involved to feel unsafe – naturally inhibiting innovation and making relationships much more difficult 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 take a turn for the worse.

But what can you do as a leader when heads collide, causing friction between your team members? It comes in the form of conflict management. At its core, the purpose of conflict management is to approach any dispute in a way that will ensure that the disagreement occurs constructively.

Here's four ways to effectively manage conflict in the moment when collaborating with your team:

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. Remember: 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.

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2. Use data.

As the saying goes, 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 data are you currently looking at? What does the historical data show? Do you have a projected ROI?

Having objective data to use as a benchmark can help determine which proposed ideas have the most merit, and provides an effective way to reach a 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.

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.

Without this sense of ownership, your team members are left pointing in different directions. You must be the one to decide which direction will be the most beneficial for the entire company. Consensus is not a requirement to making a decision —call the final shot to end lingering disagreements and deliver on expected deadlines.

4. Address lingering emotions through follow-up conversations.

The last and probably most important recommendation we can make is to address any emotions that may be lingering after a conflict has occurred. Whether it was a small disagreement or a heated argument, it's important to know where each team member stands. if the matter at hand was resolved during the meeting, follow-up conversations can address any underlying issues that may have been overlooked in the first place and could potentially have a negative impact on your workplace culture now or in the future.

Commit to having either group or one-on-one conversations to discuss behavior and emotion, both yours and theirs, to create a feeling of understanding and reestablish a sense of team unity. This lets your team know that you care about how they feel.

In summary, conflict isn't always a bad thing. 

Challenging a colleague's opinion and "interrogating their reality," as Fierce CEO Susan Scott would say, can produce amazing business results. It is important to know how to have these conversations tactfully to avoid a full-blown argument that accomplishes little. Great leaders know how to facilitate these conversations and set aside ego while practicing patience and self-awareness.

Whether it is a work conflict or a relationship issue, you owe it to yourself (and the other person) to have the difficult conversation to move the relationship forward. Take action and be Fierce today.

This blog was originally published April 5, 2017 on the Fierce blog; last updated December 13, 2018.

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