In a team environment, conflict is inevitable. Some conflicts are more minor like what time to hold a meeting, who is going to take lead on that dreaded data entry project, or where to order lunch. Other conflicts are more difficult, like delivering tough feedback, holding a teammate accountable for a mistake, or disagreeing over your team’s approach to an entire marketing campaign. Team conflicts can have serious repercussions for group performance and team member happiness if you don’t learn to manage them thoughtfully.
The key is to encourage and enforce healthy conflict. Healthy conflict directly and constructively addresses the issue at hand without ignoring or trivializing the needs of either party. From years of working closely with teams to develop their emotional intelligence, we have come across a number of impactful strategies teams employ to engage in healthy conflict. What follows are three of the best.
Make people feel safe. Google’s year-long study of their highest performing teams found that the single most important factor to team success was not personality, IQ, or structure. It was psychological safety. Psychological safety is a group mentality where people feel comfortable taking risks and don’t fear rejection or ridicule. Google teams that felt this sense of safety had more equal contributions from all team members, read their teammates’ tones of voice and body language more effectively, and were more skilled at recognizing when a teammate felt excluded or upset. Teams that feel psychologically safe are much better equipped to hear from everyone and engage in healthy conflicts where people don’t feel the need to be “right,” people aren’t afraid to speak up, and perspectives aren’t overlooked.
Make it a norm for everyone to speak up. When you normalize sharing ideas and thoughtful disagreement, you lower the stakes around conflict. Your team gets used to it. This of course makes it even easier to share, and so the positive cycle begins. As an extreme example, look at the hedge fund Bridgewater which does everything it can to normalize healthy conflict. Their employees each carry iPads with “pain buttons” they use as a conflict barometer for how conflicts made them feel. In fact, healthy disagreement is so encouraged at Bridgewater that when they found their dry erase board didn’t erase properly, they readily spent hours debating the decision-making process behind their purchase. Sure, this approach seems excessive (especially from the perspective of teams that don’t rely on conflict the way a hedge fund does), but they’ve absolutely succeeded at getting everyone to feel comfortable speaking out and sharing critiques or disagreement—and that’s a lot more than many teams can say.
Turn conflict into collaboration. More often than not, conflicts become unhealthy when emotions take over and people become too absorbed in their own opinions and feelings to act considerately. When a conflict moves this direction, one of the best things you can do as a team is to steer the conversation away from conflict to collaboration. Here are a few techniques to help:
Expand your options. When your team is deadlocked between two options and making no progress, work together to come up with several entirely new options. Getting the whole team to zoom out from their conflict, also reminds everyone that the purpose of the conversation is not to win the debate but to accomplish the bigger goal.
Idea stacking. Instead of critiquing an idea, take turns adding improvements to an existing one. Often, people “stack on” by coming up with a critique and a solution for that critique before sharing. This leads to a more thoughtful, complex, and creative idea than the team began with.
Assign Roles. If you find your team too combative, assign specific perspectives and roles to each member—like “questioner,” “data person,” “idea generator,” and “advisor based on past experience.” Then have each person show up prepared to present their assigned perspective and answer questions. The assignment of roles ensures a more balanced, forum-like conflict and it shows the team the value of bringing alternate perspectives.
From Insights to Action. When you consider how significant the repercussions of a single conflict can be, it’s clear how important it is to devote your team’s time and energy to improving their approach. Talk about these conflict strategies and techniques at your next team meeting and employ the ones that will boost your team’s performance and happiness.
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