Turn Conflict into a Competitive Advantage For Your Team
By Ashli Komaryk, MBA, ACC, Chemistry Consulting Group
Yes! You heard that right – conflict as an advantage!
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could channel all the energy, focus and passion invested in conflict so that it yields a positive outcome? As a leader at any level, think about all the extra time you would get back! You’d have more time and energy to devote to your strategic work of leading instead of dealing with exhausting and stressful conflict resolution.
We’re used to thinking about conflict as bad, negative, unhelpful, dysfunctional, decidedly undesirable. Yet not all conflicts are created equally and some of them can be downright helpful. Let’s take a closer look and make a distinction between two main types of conflict:
1. Relationship Conflict (Dysfunctional)
This type of conflict is characterized by personal attacks, ego-driven agendas, focusing on one party’s personality or communication style, facial expressions, or even tone of voice. Relationship conflict is quite common. This is not surprising when we consider that we don’t get to choose our colleagues. Sometimes (often) we can find ourselves on a team or having to collaborate with individuals we may not have chosen, were we given the opportunity.
Relationship conflict is decidedly dysfunctional, destructive and demoralizing. Through it, we’re not working to resolve any important issues, or find better or new ways to do things. Instead, it distracts our attention, absorbs our energy and destroys our team’s functionality.
2. Task or Process Conflict (Functional)
This type of conflict deals with issues, ideas, different ways to do a task, the prioritization of action items, or choosing which process or methodology to adopt.
If the conflict is task- or process-focused, then having your team engage in what we would call functional or productive conflict makes sense. The exchange of differing points of view (even heated exchanges) regarding the way to accomplish a task, set out a process, or put priorities in order of importance, could be of great benefit! Especially if you have diversity on your team.
It’s important to remember that leveraging the benefits of diversity doesn’t come easily. It takes time and patience because this very element that could yield rich dialogue and debate, requires a deliberate investment of time and effort for that richness to be given the chance to flourish.
Task- or process-conflict are not personal. Thus, when your team engages in these types of functional or productive conflict the results will likely include:
- More viewpoints
- Diverse viewpoints
- More options
- Higher quality solutions
- A greater sense of collaboration as the debate may fuel additional new ideas and solutions
- Creative thinking
Psychological Safety is a Key Ingredient
So how do we achieve this wondrous and productive practice of functional conflict?
One fundamental element is creating and maintaining a climate of sincere psychological safety within your team. Dr. Amy Edmundson, author of The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth, defines psychological safety as “the belief that the work environment is safe for individual risk taking” and “the experience of feeling able to speak up with relevant ideas, questions or concerns…when colleagues trust and respect each other and feel able – even obligated – to be candid”.
We want all members of the team to feel at ease expressing their thoughts and ideas.
When everyone knows the rules of engagement and that it’s safe to say “I don’t agree!”, that’s when everyone has permission to share and explore ideas. The benefits of psychological safety to an organization’s financial health, overall safety, the quality of the customer experience and also the degree of engagement and retention of top talent are well-documented in research by Dr. Edmundson and others.
Strategies to get more Comfortable with Conflict
Here are six strategies you can experiment with on your team to build trust and psychological safety. These strategies set the stage for more creative solution-finding, improved operational efficiencies in every department and a generally heightened state of well-being on your team.
- Co-create rules of engagement for discussion in meetings, including behaviours that all agree are acceptable.
- Thank others for their ideas and perspectives.
- Apologize for inappropriate behaviour (taps into vulnerability-based trust).
- Speak up when something is bothering you about what’s being discussed.
- Whiteboard different points of view and their pros and cons to help everyone follow the discussion.
- Use the “yes, and…” technique: follow each team member’s contribution with “yes, and…” instead of NO… (this is a collaboratively constructive approach, rather than a confrontational one that could potentially make your team members defensive)
Good luck implementing some (or ALL!) of these strategies to help your team kick dysfunctional conflict to the curb, on the road to becoming an even more cohesive, creative and high-performing team!
Call us at Chemistry Consulting to discover how our customizable Leadership Development programs will help you learn and implement MBA best-practices in leadership. Give your team a competitive edge and reap the benefits.