Conflict happens. And that’s not bad. Unfortunately, too many people think that if conflict exists than unity and harmony doesn’t. Consequently we become opponents instead of collaborative partners, and progress grinds to a halt.
Conflict can be healthy for a relationship, a team, and an organization. The issue is not conflict itself, but what type of conflict, and how we handle it that is often the problem.
Unhealthy conflict is often targeted at the other person, does not work toward a solution, may involve denial, avoidance, hurtful, even abusive speech, and doesn’t advance or improve the relationship, or the project.
Healthy conflict may be very passionate in presenting positions and opinions, yet it’s motivation is solution oriented. It can help heighten awareness of the problem, bring concerns out into the open, and sharpen understanding of problem complexities, leading to better outcomes.
Here are three keys for handling conflict well.
1. Address the issue, not the person. There is no place, nor should there be tolerance for personal attack, sarcasm, demeaning speech and other toxic behaviors. Neither is it beneficial to be focused on pinning the blame when things go wrong. Separate the idea from the individual and speak to it.
I have often said, “This is a crucial, critical issue we need to discuss. I am placing it in the middle of the table, and we are going to speak to the issue on the table, and not at the person across the table.”
2. Establish rules of engagement. This is a shared agreement stating how we want to speak and behave with each other. What is acceptable, and what is unacceptable? Where is the line that when crossed moves us from constructive to destructive conflict? The best time to create these norms is when a team first forms, but if it wasn’t done, than now is the next best time.
Does this remove all toxic conflict behaviors? No. But you are much more aware of when you cross the line, and are able to correct yourselves, and move back to healthy conflict.
2 When a decision is made, support it. You may still disagree, but you have had your input, you have made your case – now it’s time to implement the solution.
I was privileged to have a good mentor who demonstrated by example how to passionately make your case, and support the outcome you disagreed with. We served on the same committee within a college Board of Trustees. I was young and new to the position, and he was older, wiser, and had served a number of years on the Board. In committee meetings we would determine a course of action which then had to be taken to the full Board for approval. My mentor would argue his case with passion, insight, and all the persuasiveness he could muster, and if the rest of us didn’t see it the same way, he had no problem registering his disagreement with our final decision. But then, when we presented it to the Board for adoption, he would be the one who seconded the motion, and then speak favorably about the proposal. At first, I was surprised and asked him if he had changed his mind. “Oh, no,” he said, “I still don’t think it’s a wise decision, but I had my say, I made my case, and couldn’t persuade the rest of the committee. We are a team, it was our decision, and now it is my responsibility to support that decision, and help implement it to better the organization.” And then he added, “If I let my disagreement be known to the whole Board, it will heighten tension, reduce harmony, and undermine unity.”
That’s mature management of disagreement and conflict.
In The Advantage Patrick Lencioni states,
Even when people can’t come to an agreement around an issue, they must still leave the room unambiguously committed to a common course of action.
Conflict is inevitable, but it doesn’t have to be damaging. By learning to engage in healthy conflict you, your team, or your organization can make better decisions, and establish a culture of true collaboration.