From a young age, most of us were taught that conflict or fighting is bad. But is it really? It can be if the intention of the conflict is self-serving, but if everyone's focus is on the greater good of the company or team, it's an opportunity for growth.
The best way to improve how you deal with conflict is to look inward first. Start by learning what your perception of conflict is. Do you associate conflict with dysfunction? Disrespect? Time loss? Something else? Then, see if you can create a new and more empowering perception, such as conflict is a learning opportunity or it means we care. Whatever works for you.
Here are some additional ways to take control of conflict throughout your organization and specifically among your team members.
Plan for conflicts by design.
No team is conflict-free. Period. And conflict presents itself in various forms, but many have predictable patterns. For example, every leader is tasked at one point in their career with how to manage an underperforming employee. It's also common to deal with overly critical employees who harm the morale of a team. Another is serving as moderator for two employees who disagree with each other. The list is a long one.
So get in front of this by studying resources that help develop mental frameworks on how to handle conflicts, and you may also want to explore working with a coach. A good one will create scenarios for you to practice how to respond, and then help you develop your own leadership style that is adaptable to a variety of situations.
Don't always come to the rescue.
Liane Hornsey, former Vice President of People Operations at Google, noted that she would never mediate a conflict between employees. She said there were instances at Google where two coworkers were openly upset with one another and the only message from management was for them to work it out themselves.
This may seem counterintuitive, but it sets a precedent for how much organizational leaders trust and empower their teams to solve personal conflicts.
Your approach to disagreements may be more hands-on than what's practiced at Google, but here's the important takeaway--while you can maybe fix the immediate conflict by jumping in, you likely are creating a bigger problem later from a cultural and team trust standpoint.
When you must get involved, don't add fuel to the fire.
As an example from my own experience, my consulting firm was hired to work with the executive team of a large public company. The CEO and his direct reports were all present. Mid-way through our second day, two senior executives in the leadership team start going at it, and it got ugly fast. One executive said to another, "you are a micromanager and the people around you don't trust you."
The receiving executive was enraged. The conversation quickly turned to threatening legal action. This moment erupted from the build-up of months of back-and-forth between them. As you can imagine, this dysfunction (which is not uncommon by the way), seriously got in the way of this team's ability to perform.
It took several hours of guided coaching for each party to be able to hear each other, but they eventually reached a resolution, granted each other their trust, and worked together effectively through the following year.
In this case, it is advisable to bring in a neutral party that is highly-trained to deal with this type of scenario, but if that's not possible, here's our core philosophy: don't pick sides, give each party the opportunity to voice their discontent and guide each one to see and experience (notice I didn't say agree with) what the other is feeling. But above all, stay neutral. Think Switzerland.
Identify and mitigate against your weaknesses.
Amy Gallo, a contributing editor at Harvard Business Review and the author of the HBR Guide to Dealing with Conflict found that most people can be classified into two categories: those who avoid conflict and those who seek it. People who have a tendency to avoid disagreements are usually focused on not hurting the feelings of those around them, while the conflict seekers are focused on finding the truth.
It's not bad to belong to either camp, but it's important to recognize your weaknesses and work to improve them. She noted that working through conflict with another person forms a close bond between them.
So just because differences are sometimes expressed in a negative way, it doesn't mean your team is going to fall apart. It may just show your team is becoming more like a family than a loose collection of acquaintances.