The word conflict implicitly carries a negative connotation. When we think of conflict, we often have a physical as well as emotional response. Heart rate, breathing, and perspiration increase while our fight or flight response engages. Certainly, approaching conflict as an all-or-none equation by either reacting aggressively (fight) or avoiding the conflict entirely (flight) results in a net-negative. There is value, however, in embracing conflict.
Through conflict, we challenge assumptions, establish priorities, identify weaknesses, and generate ideas. We should be open to conflict that can create better business outcomes. This doesn’t mean we hand out a set of boxing gloves to every team member and let them argue without intervention. First, we have to set some ground rules for effective conflict management.
Without psychological safety and trust, team members will likely be guarded with their thoughts in times of conflict. Creating a culture that leans into conflict takes time. Team members need to observe leaders expressing disagreements with one another in a respectful manner without emotion and retaliation before they will believe that they too can express differing ideas. This can be a challenge, because most leaders prefer to disagree with one another behind closed doors and appear as a united front publicly. Certainly, there’s value to that approach, however, modeling effective conflict management behaviors for others in an open environment can create a culture of healthy idea exchange.
Next, it’s important to acknowledge that not all conflict is good conflict. Conflict that arises from tone and delivery should be managed appropriately through communication skills training. Conflict that arises from being disrespectful must be labeled as such and not tolerated. As open conflict is embraced in your organization, it will certainly be a learning process. It should be communicated clearly that only solution-oriented conflict will be tolerated in the organization. It can be helpful to engage a mediator at first who can call out communication issues and help all parties stay focused on the core ideas that advance the business while maintaining positive relationships.
Finally, it can be helpful to acknowledge that we all approach conflict differently. According to the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Interest assessment, there are 5 conflict styles (Avoiding, Accommodating, Competing, Collaborating, and Compromising). Learning more about your preferred approach and how that is perceived by team members can create meaningful conversations and a deeper understanding/respect for our individual differences.
Change is hard, and leaning into conflict challenges our basic instincts. For survival sake, we’re biologically wired to fight or flee. Any change that involves ignoring our physiological response to a stress/anxiety invoking event will take some time. Take baby steps towards healthy conflict and publicly celebrate the resolutions that drive the business forward.