Working on a team isn’t all high-fives and tacos.
People disagree and for many, disagreement equals frustration, annoyance, venting, and a stall on productivity.
One leader I worked with avoided conflict at all costs. He told me team conflict made him want to hide under his desk. He preferred to “go along to get along.” Another leader described handling conflict as “having it out” and loved being able to prove her point. “There’s nothing better than seeing the look of defeat on the other person’s face.”
Sheer avoidance or a win/loss perspective are two of the least productive ways to navigate disagreements. Neither of these two leaders were intentionally trying to be unproductive, rather they didn’t have the skills to respond effectively.
Think about your own response to conflict, what impact does it have on you and your leadership?
Productive conflict is a disagreement that results in a better outcome than what was originally presented AND leaves the working relationship intact, maybe even stronger.
That said, productive conflict does not equate to harmony. It is still uncomfortable and maybe even difficult, but all parties believe in and support the common goal.
Teams who excel at productive conflict have some common characteristics. They discuss disagreement, even invite it, before it ever comes up. They have a shared belief that conflict isn’t to be feared. They minimize that fear by putting processes in place to handle it. This means roles and responsibilities are clear. There are defined processes for escalation of issues, ground rules for debate, and agreement to how the decision will be made.
When these conflict handling processes are absent, stress is amplified. When teams are stressed, their interpersonal interactions degrade into blame, gossip, avoidance, complaining, etc.
A Model Team
Meet Irene. She is the Senior Director of a large marketing department with 10 direct reports.
Here’s what she says about conflict, “When people disagree, it means we don’t have the best solution identified which means we can’t do our best work. I don’t see it as a bad thing. I see it as a turning point to something potentially great.”
When a debate or disagreement comes up (and there’s no immediate solution), Irene calls a time-out and asks “What is our goal here? What are we trying to accomplish?”
The interruption is helpful in two ways. It first stops the progression of emotion and second, forces the team to take a breath and think. More importantly, stop talking. She then invites everyone to share their perspective and what they’re trying to accomplish. This action of inquiry unearths new information for everyone.
Irene synthesizes what she hears and defines a common goal. This is the signal for the team to now brainstorm options to achieve this new goal. She seeks multiple approaches to break the team away from binary, win/lose thinking. Sometimes Irene offers ideas she doesn’t support herself just to spark new thinking. Inevitably, once multiple options are created, the team sees the problem in a new way.
The team has agreed in advance to voting as their process for team decision-making. Once 3-4 options have been identified, Irene says “Are we ready?” This is what moves the team to a vote and a decision.
Irene says that occasionally discussions go quickly, others take more time, and sometimes the team hits an unbreakable tie. She must make the call. It rarely is a perfect process, but because they have one, they navigate conflict far more productively than if they didn’t.
Discuss as a team and individually, that conflict is a productive and natural aspect of teamwork. Varying perspectives are welcomed, and harmony isn’t the goal. It’s about getting to the best result. Then, identify a process to resolve disagreements, such as:
Align to a common goal, keep the conversation focused on work and not on personalities.
Generate multiple options to resolve the issue. Look for common ground in the options.
Select an option. Decide in advance how the new option will be selected such as by team vote, a coin flip, or the manager makes the decision. For more information on team decision-making read Demystify Decision-making, Apply Structure and Process
No mention of productive team conflict can be had without talking about emotions, which occur on an individual level. Each person on the team must be adept at emotion management for productive team conflict to take place.
Typically, what derails us in conflict isn’t the behavior of others, rather it is the meaning we attach to their behavior. For example, your colleague disagrees with your perspective, and you interpret this as dismissing your expertise. This annoys, frustrates, embarrasses, or angers you causing you to argue harder or shut down. Maybe you vent (or gossip) about this disagreement with a colleague or complain at home.
Now, sure, your colleague could be dismissing our expertise, but is that likely? What else could be true? What might explain their dissent? Maybe they were so tired they couldn’t think about anything new, or misunderstood, distracted by a recent concerning call from a loved one. We could identify dozens of scenarios that might explain their behavior.
Notice what happens to your emotions when you step away from one interpretation (“they’re dismissing me”) to multiple interpretations (misunderstanding, fatigue, or personal concerns). Emotions go down and understanding, empathy, creativity, and problem-solving can emerge.
This is called cognitive reframing, a technique that helps us apply different meaning to interactions. Once we realize all the factors that could be at play, (and for example, that the person is likely not dismissing our expertise), we are more likely to handle conflict productively.
If you find conflict uncomfortable, frustrating, and a general pain, then you’re completely normal. No one likes conflict. In fact, if your goal is to like or be 100% comfortable with it, then lower the bar. That’s not the expectation. Focus on a shared outcome, acknowledge the discomfort, apply a process, and practice managing emotions. It won’t be perfect, but it will likely be more productive.
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Until next time!
Amy Drader is a management consultant and credentialed coach with over 20 years’ experience in HR and operations. She knows first-hand the joys and challenges of leading people and is dedicated to helping managers and teams advance their performance. She is the owner of Growth Partners Consulting, a boutique leadership and team development consulting firm that provides customized training and coaching.
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