Part of the job of leadership is knowing the right way to handle conflict. Avoiding conflict isn't an option for top leaders--at least not if you want your company to succeed. Fearing conflict reflects that you're a people pleaser rather than a problem solver. Getting aggressive in a conflict and losing your temper is another losing strategy. Yet as Mike Myatt writes in Forbes: "If you cannot or will not address conflict in a healthy, productive fashion, you should not be in a leadership role."
So with tactics related to avoidance, fear, and aggression off the table, how is a leader to resolve workplace conflict effectively? A big part of the answer lies in understanding what it means to have "healthy conflict." While conflict in general is not necessarily healthy, healthy conflict really is healthy--for your employees, your end users, and your entire business.
Here are six ways that you can facilitate healthy conflict in your office to resolve tough problems and create alignment:
Meet to fuel passionate debate. Meetings can be dreaded events at your company, or they can be among the most valuable tools in your arsenal to allow individuals and teams to make a real impact. Many people hold meetings for the wrong reasons, which is what leads to boredom and disillusionment. If you've called a meeting simply to communicate basic information, you could have achieved the same goal by sending an email and saved your company time and money. The litmus test you should use to decide whether having a meeting makes sense is whether or not you're creating an environment that promotes healthy conflict.
The true purpose of a meeting should be to engage with other people and work through difficult issues together, finding solutions and helping the company progress in key areas. When you foster an environment where you can have that kind of healthy conflict, then getting opposing perspectives together becomes incredibly valuable. Meetings morph from meaningless time wasters to the place where people can impact the organization more than anywhere else. Having all the right stakeholders in the room engaging in healthy debate, and then walking out with complete alignment in decisions that teams can go execute, driving the company in the direction of progress toward its vision--now that's a meeting worth going to.
Find ways to foster real trust. In his book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, Patrick Lencioni lists "absence of trust" as the underlying dysfunction that holds teams back from high performance. Distrust also keeps people from being able to respectfully disagree with each other so that everyone can reap the benefits of healthy conflict. But trust takes time to build. It requires vulnerability and humility from everyone on the team. People need to have experiences together that teach them to trust each other, so that they can feel safe being candid with one another and engaging in healthy debate. As a leader, it's important to invest in creating the types of ah-ha moments that inspire trust among team members.
Team-building activities that help employees get to know each other better and encourage vulnerability are great for fostering the level of trust that can lead to healthy conflict. Early on at Pluralsight, our leadership team participated in vulnerability exercises that required learning to let go and be vulnerable with each other, whether by sharing personal experiences about our childhood, or opening up about other core aspects of ourselves that are meaningful to us. Such activities help break down the walls between people and increase comfort with working at the level of healthy conflict.
Understand personalities. Since trust is what empowers healthy conflict, it pays to examine all possible avenues that may lead to increasing that trust. In addition to team-building, there are other ways to help team members boost their understanding of who their colleagues really are as human beings--and thus bolster their trust in one another.
At Pluralsight, we had our leadership team participate in personality assessments together, to enlighten everyone on each team member's individual traits. This profiling was useful not only in understanding personalities, but also in helping the group "get it" when a particular behavior that may have seemed contentious was actually true to type. When you can recognize certain actions as congruent with someone's personality rather than seeing that person as maliciously trying to create negative conflict, it can shed new light on a situation, promoting patience and understanding amongst team members.
Check for momentum. To determine whether airing opposing viewpoints is really resulting in healthy conflict, you can assess certain checkpoints, inspired by Lencioni's work. Healthy conflict means the debate is driving toward four positive outcomes:
- Promoting progress and forward momentum
- Creating alignment
- Increasing understanding
- Generating collective decisions that create improvements for the company, the products, and your customers
In short, healthy conflict should drive people toward commitment and propel the company forward. If you're not seeing these signs of definitive progress resulting from heated dialogue, then it can't really be called healthy. Leaders should be on the lookout for these four indicators of clear momentum.
In situations where teams are staying stuck in debate, one way that leaders can break the logjam is to request each individual's commitment to doing what's best for the company. While many ideas may be on the table, the one that represents the optimum solution for the business is the one that should win, regardless of which outcome someone prefers. People must be willing to concede on points in order to move the group forward. The ultimate goal of healthy conflict is making team decisions in alignment, and getting group commitment to drive the agreed-upon changes together.
Develop a conflict resolution agreement. A cornerstone of our strategy to encourage healthy conflict at Pluralsight was the development of a conflict resolution agreement. In this document (which the executive team crafted during an offsite), the leadership group agreed about what truly constitutes healthy behavior when we're trying to resolve conflict--and what doesn't. These "rules of engagement" spell out the types of behavior that are acceptable during discussions, which include:
- Our goal is a focus on solutions and commitment to resolution.
- Passionate debate with emotion is expected when necessary.
- Raised voices--and even profanity--are OK in context.
- Everyone should express opinions and align behind decisions.
- The team should "mine for conflict," drawing out differing viewpoints if they don't surface naturally.
Our list of unhealthy "unacceptables" includes:
- No personal attacks, rage, or obsessive focus on blame.
- No conflict in front of the wrong people (non team-members).
- No rehashing old conflict that has been resolved previously.
- No politicking, hidden agendas, or ulterior motives.
- No multi-tasking during discussions or lack of participation.
While your company may choose different points to emphasize, simply creating a conflict resolution agreement gives everyone a clear roadmap from which to operate. At the root of this agreement is accountability: each team member must hold the others accountable for sticking to the plan--and calling each other out when they don't.
Practice these strategies. Creating your conflict-resolution agreement is meaningless without post-meeting retrospectives to ensure that everyone stays on the same page. Leaders should get in the habit of frequent check-ins, asking, "What just happened?" and "How do you think that went?"
It's also the leader's role to help teams recognize when they successfully achieve healthy conflict and its positive outcomes. It can be tough to experience conflict in the heat of the moment, so the leader's encouragement of the process as it's happening can facilitate momentum. Let your team know that though it may feel uncomfortable, they're on the right track, making progress in a healthy direction through their passionate debate. It's the leader's responsibility to help people overcome their fear of being candid with each other for the betterment of the company. The best leaders will learn to foster, cultivate, and ultimately celebrate the type of healthy conflict that can create true change at every level of their organization.