Can Team Conflict Be Healthy?

Can Team Conflict Be Healthy?

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Healthy Conflict?

team conflict can ruin morale

If you've been on a team you already know that conflict can come from a number of different directions. Conflict can show up at any time and for any number of reasons. People often fall into conflict based on personality differences, project disputes, or political drive. When people fall into conflict teams can become toxic, triangulated, and ineffective quickly if the conflict is left unresolved.

Since you have been on or led a team or two you know that most people don't like conflict and most leaders really don't want to deal with conflict. Think about it, when you are upset with someone how do you respond? Most people go to the silent treatment, they avoid the person and thereby avoid the conflict. But does this actually help? Not so much.

Expect Conflict

Conflict is a natural part of team dynamics and development. Tuckman's Stages of Team Development actually contains an entire stage called Storming which represents the conflict that will naturally occur within any team. Every team has conflict: high performing teams, low performing teams, new teams, established teams, they all have conflict.

When it comes to conflict, what sets high-performing teams apart from the others is that their leaders deal with conflict before it becomes toxic.

You know your team is toxic when:

  • morale takes a nosedive;
  • team members aren't talking or are actively hostile toward each other;
  • more time is spent talking about the issues than the project;
  • other teams know that your team isn't working;
  • you are actively floating your resume to just get out of this bad situation.

When it comes to conflict, what sets high-performing teams apart from the others is that their leaders deal with conflict before it becomes toxic.

Many leaders fall into the "they are adults, they will work it out" trap. If only it were that simple. Avoidance is the most common response to conflict but it's also the least effective at dealing with conflict. But avoidance will only lead to the conflict worsening. If you want to run a high performing team you will need to become adept at handling conflict well.

Avoiding Toxic Conflict

What happens that makes conflict go toxic, cause colleagues to become combatants and undermine productivity and eventually have everyone on the team floating resumes to anywhere but here? How or if the conflict is handled.

Conflict is a healthy part of any team's life cycle. The way conflict is handled determines if it will become toxic or be a springboard to greater insight and progress.

Here are the ways we tend to handle conflict:

  • Denial
  • Avoidance
  • Capitulation
  • Domination
  • Collaboration

This list comes from People Skills by Robert Bolton (affiliate link btw 🙂 ). Which one do you think is going to lead to positive outcomes? Collaboration definitely. Collaboration takes effort, finesse, and patience but the payoff is going to be a solid team that attracts top talent and gets results.

If you are going to take a collaborative approach to deal with conflict then here are 3 steps to make that easier.

1. Create a Conflict-Ready Climate

As the leader, take the lead on how conflict will be dealt with when it inevitably occurs. Ensure that opinions are welcomed and that it's safe to share here. Allow people to discuss things even when it gets heated but create ground rules or a behavioral contract.

A behavioral contract could include how conflict is dealt with by those in conflict and how to avoid conflicts. Here are some ideas for your behavioral contracts:

  • we deal with each other respectfully in meetings, emails, and other communications
  • we talk to each other, not around each other
  • people in conflict have 48 hours to resolve it and bring an update back to the team
  • we build on ideas we don't tear them down

2. Keep Lines of Communication Open

Communication can help resolve conflict.

Conflict can be used to energize the team if it's dealt with appropriately. One way to make sure team conflict doesn't get toxic is to keep the lines of communication open. Lead the discussions between individuals in conflict. Address the problem(s) with the team when conflict is already turning toxic. Bring the team together to resolve the problems when conflict has turned toxic.

For more on running meetings effectively check out Leading Meetings That Don't Suck.

Remember they work in this environment as well. Most of your team will want things to get better and they will be looking to you to guide them through this rough patch. So call a meeting with a specific solutions-focused agenda. Sit down with people who might be causing or nursing conflict. Leading through conflict requires patience, tact, and a delicate hand.

You can bring a team back from the brink of collapse if you keep the lines of communication open. It's easy for these discussions to turn into gripe sessions or finger-pointing, shouting matches if you aren't abundantly clear about why this meeting is happening. There is a place for the energy that conflict creates but it's not tearing other team mates down. You have a responsibility to protect everyone on the team from insult and attack and to address those issues if they arise.

3. Harness the power

Conflict creates energy that you as a leader can harness to drive new ways of thinking and identify options that might not have been considered without the conflict. As a leader conflict will force you to grow or retreat. If you remember that conflict is unavoidable, healthy, and an agent for innovation.

As you lean into conflict more you will become more comfortable confronting it in collaborative ways that enable your team to accept their differences and grow because of them. That will lead to deeper levels of collaboration and appreciation in the long run. Remember that's why there's an entire stage named storming. After storming is norming and then performing.

You can use issues, disputes, misunderstandings and other forms of conflict to propel your team.

Until next time,

Make today count!

About the author 

Dr. David Arrington

David a husband, father and the principal of Arrington Coaching. He and his team work with leaders, teams, organizations, and entrepreneurs. He regularly speaks and writes on leadership development, team alignment, and peak performance.

  • #3 is so true, David. You’ve got a great point there. It’s about getting solutions. We shouldn’t get engaged in a conflict just to be engaged in a conflict. There is a (Japanese, I guess) saying, that I like a lot: “Do not solve the question of guilt, solve the problem!”.

  • David,

    It was great talking to you yesterday. I am getting an error message when trying to watch your “Can Team Conflict Be Healthy” video on my Android phone. I’ve been able to watch the other videos. Thank you.

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