Know, Do, Deal: Differentiating Between Healthy & Unhealthy Conflict
Conflict. Just seeing the word might trigger anxiety, fear, and discomfort. At work, most of us have been conditioned to avoid conflict at all costs. It’s scary! It’s destructive! It’s inappropriate and unprofessional!
Scrap that. It’s time to reframe our relationship with conflict: Workplace tension can be an incredibly productive, positive force.
The key to doing it successfully? Understand the difference between healthy and unhealthy conflict, then equip yourself with the tools to facilitate healthy conflict and deal with unhealthy conflict when it arises.
Healthy conflict is a vital part of a productive, engaged workplace. It leads to more creative solutions, collaboration, innovation, and progress for your entire organization.
For healthy conflict to flourish, it’s absolutely crucial that there’s an environment of psychological safety. That is, people need to feel like it’s safe to disagree, admit to mistakes, and offer honest feedback. Trust and respect are the bedrocks of psychological safety and therefore healthy conflict.
So how do you ensure trust and respect are at the core of your company’s culture? It sounds like a big task — and it is — but you can start with these initial, foundational steps:
Set Clear Expectations — Define what productivity and success look like in your company, then keep repeating those messages. Make your expectations for each team, department, or role crystal clear — along with the consequences of not meeting those expectations. When we know what’s expected of us ahead of time, it sets us up to better handle issues that may arise.
Encourage Questions — Ask your employees to come to you with any questions about your expectations. If people are hesitant to step forward, schedule informal, one-on-one meetings to create the space and time for people to take you up on your offer.
Be Human— I know, I know, we’re all human, but how often do you see people for the people they are — as opposed to their tiles, roles, salaries, or tasks? (If you don’t think you de-personalize your colleagues, check your thoughts and words the next time you’re asking for that past-deadline report.) You have to talk to your employees as people. What’s important to them? What motivates them? What are their values? Perfect alignment between organizational values and each individual’s personal values is impossible, of course, but overarching tension-creating themes will make themselves clear when you take the time to explore differences.
Be Vulnerable — As a boss and a leader, when you’re genuine, honest, and vulnerable with your employees, it fosters an atmosphere of mutual trust and respect. Admit your mistakes and show how you adjust to correct them. Be open about the things that you don’t know, and ask for help when you need it.
Unhealthy conflict creates obstacles. It’s personal, defensive, and unproductive. Unhealthy conflict often involves denial of the existence of problems, avoidance of dealing with issues, anger, blame, and manipulation. In unhealthy conflict, there are no real winners. (Perceived winners, maybe.)
Emotions and disagreements can (and likely will) be a part of both healthy and unhealthy conflict, but the outcome of each will be entirely different.
When you notice unhealthy conflict brewing in the workplace, it’s important you deal with it. Here are four initial steps:
1. Face it — Avoiding conflict will not make it go away. I repeat: avoiding conflict will not make it go away. It will probably just make it worse. Instead, look at conflict as an opportunity to conquer problems and make the workplace better for everyone instead of as a situation waiting to spiral out of control. Whether team members have brought a situation to your attention, or you noticed the signs yourself, start identifying how to best address it.
2. Encourage Accountability — If two or more of your employees are experiencing conflict with each other, encourage them to resolve it between themselves before you step in. Empowering your employees to work through their issues will establish your trust in and respect for them and their abilities. Give them some guidelines for having the conversation and let them know you’re a resource if they need you throughout the process. Additionally, you might encourage them to: meet at a neutral location like a coffee shop or conference room rather than one party’s office, use “I” statements to ensure they’re sharing from their own perspective, listen without interruption or distraction, and pause before responding to ensure they understand what the other person is actually saying. Of course, if the unhealthy conflict involves harassment or discrimination, enlist the support of your HR department immediately.
3. Get Involved — If the accountability approach fails and unhealthy conflict still reigns supreme, it’s time for you, a manager, or HR support to step in to help facilitate the conversation. (Be wary of pre-existing relationships of those involved. Consider: do I have a closer relationship with one employee? How easy will it be for me to be objective?) You still want to let the employees experiencing the conflict do most of the talking. You’re there to guide the conversation, discourage personal attacks, and facilitate a compromise or mutually acceptable resolution. If things get heated, it’s always ok to have everyone step away for a few minutes, an hour, or even a couple of days before reconvening. Give your employees actionable steps to take to address the sources of the conflict, and set up regular times to check in with everyone involved and to ensure they’re following through on their commitments from the conversation.
4. Call in the Pros — It’s tough, but let your ego off the hook. Proximity to people or a situation can be a good thing, but can also present a unique challenge when emotions are running high. Don’t feel like you have to be the one to resolve the situation. If you feel like you and/or your employees might be too close to the conflict to be able to facilitate its resolution, it’s time to pause and call in an expert. Conflict resolution professionals know how to get to the root cause of the conflict and identify a best path forward. Having an outsider listen to the situation with unbiased ears can do wonders for even the most tense situations.