Children want to know what the rules are, and they want those rules to be applied dependably between them. Baseball players want to know how the umpire is “defining” the strike zone, and they want consistent at-bat calls across both teams. And if drivers followed their own rules and police thought up infractions sporadically, our public roads would be chaos.
Similarly, as a leader, it is crucial to clarify your expectations around conflict and how you will manage rows among your team. Healthy conflict on teams can be the birthplace of new ideas, ways of seeing, stronger relationships, and team unity. Conversely, unhealthy conflict can create a toxic workplace and lead to negativity and resentment, disruption, health issues, and turnover.
When you set clear expectations about conflict and how you will respond when it inevitably arises, you can help your team gain the potential benefits of conflict and avoid the costs. Try a few of these proven strategies to cultivate healthy, productive conflict as well as high performance on your team.
Set team norms around conflict
Not all conflict is created equal. Teams that are willing to engage in passionate debate around critical issues, challenge, and question one another find the best solutions and make the best decisions. This form of conflict is healthy and essential to high team performance. You want to be a role model and encourage your team to engage in the messiness of conflict.
On the flip side, long-simmering tension between people on your team is different and can derail your team from success.
Distinguish issue-based conflict from interpersonal conflict for your team. Contrary to what many leaders believe, team conflicts are usually not due to personality differences. To minimize the likelihood of unnecessary conflict, ensure decision process clarity and goal alignment and encourage people to assume positive intent and to not gossip.
Communicate that you want the team to debate and challenge each other to get to the best ideas and celebrate spirited disagreements. If you find that your team hesitates speaking up and challenging each other, assign a devil’s advocate to argue the other side. Also, make it clear that you will not tolerate mean-spirited personal conflict under any circumstances.
Establish working agreements with your team such as “we will only attack issues, not people” and a method for accountability. For example, our client Brent, who led a product team at a technology company, provided his teams with red cards to hand out to one another if they noticed a team member not abiding by their agreed-upon team norms. This established peer-level accountability on the team and allowed them to support each other in flagging and shutting down behavior against their established agreements. The red cards provided a way for the team to remind and help each other to live into the agreements they had set.
Encourage team members to work things out on their own
If your team members are in the early stages of a conflict, ask them first to try to work through their issues together. Tell them you expect them to work out their differences but provide a clear timeline for checking in. For example, indicate that you will follow up in one week to hear what resolution they have reached. It can also be helpful to provide them with resources to handle conflict better.
For example, Sarah, the head of a department at a media company, lays out a specific process she wants her team to follow when conflict arises. Sarah requests that each person explain, without any finger-pointing or blame, what they’re trying to achieve, the difficulty they’re having, and the problems resulting for their function or stakeholders. She then asks them to specify their need and request of the other person and together generate win-win solutions.
While you want to nip unhealthy conflict in the bud, it’s also important to encourage your team members to develop the skills to work through their issues. By specifying a fault-free conflict method, Sarah provides her team with the tools they need to resolve most conflicts that arise and preserve their relationships.
If you have tolerated interpersonal conflict on your team for too long or if you inherited a toxic situation, you might not be able to be hands-off. If allowed to continue, unhealthy conflict results in bitterness, turmoil and reduced productivity, and turnover.
Do you hear gossip, see factions forming, or notice either lack of engagement or stonewalling in your team meetings? These are all clues that the conflict has gone on for too long.
At this point, it’s unlikely your team members will be able to resolve their conflict themselves—and you need to step up your involvement and approach. For instance, one CEO we spoke with described bringing together his HR manager and CFO, who were were consistently disagreeing. He took their car keys and told them: “I respect and need you both, and no one is going home until we work through this.” While this may be a dramatic example, there comes the point where you will need to step in and drive a resolution.
Explicit norms are critical for team success. Don’t wait for conflict to happen to figure out how to respond. You may not react the way you want to and confuse your team with an inconsistent response. Your team will gain the benefits of healthy conflict, develop their conflict resolution skills, and avoid the damage to relationships and results from lingering tensions with a few of these strategies.
Dina Smith is the owner of Cognitas, a leadership development firm in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Dennis Adsit, PhD, is the president of Adsum Insights, an executive coaching and consulting firm based in Boulder, Colorado.