No matter at work or in everyday life, you will encounter conflict. But, if you  have the right tools to handle it, conflict can become something positive.

collaboration conflict, boss magazineMany believe the opposite of conflict is collaboration, but this isn’t true. The opposite of conflict is conformity.

Conformity is the stuff that stifles organisational creativity and growth. Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg talks of ‘CEO syndrome’, that is, the higher up the leader, the increased tendency for people to avoid questioning or challenging you because of your authority. Thus leaders do not have the opportunity to harvest the great ideas dormant in their organisations, resulting in a myopic vision, diminished decision making, and low levels of innovation.

To truly get the best from your people, you have to allow them room to give their best, which means encouraging a collaborative environment in which healthy debate can thrive.

Fear of Conflict
All great relationships require a bit of friction to grow and prosper. Patrick Lencioni, acclaimed authority in teamwork, argues that teams can’t commit until they overcome their fear of conflict. Fear of conflict creates wasteful environments of division, hidden agendas, and silos. They fail to innovate and fail to realise their full potential.

To encourage genuine collaboration—people working productively together toward a common goal—leaders need to accept that healthy conflict is a welcome and necessary ingredient.

Embracing healthy debate fosters awareness that a problem exists and needs
addressing, challenging stale assumptions and leading to positive change. In such a workplace people are happy to share, happy to listen, happy to learn from others and manage their emotions appropriately. Conflict offers opportunities to learn and grow.

collaboration conflict, boss magazineTips to Create Healthy Conflict

Lead by Example

This is true of good leadership in general, but specifically true when managing conflict. Leaders that surround themselves with “yes people” are modelling a fear of opposition, a fear of being challenged. Consensus does not mean collaboration and often means disengagement, as employees are uncomfortable putting forth their ideas.

Create a Common Language

Your teams need to know what is acceptable and what is not, in clear, unambiguous language. They also require clarity around the processes and policies created to deal with conflict fairly, expediently, and cost effectively. Such processes should apply uniformly and transparently in your organisation, without prejudice.

Create Common Goals

As Steve Jobs, once said, “It’s okay to spend a lot of time arguing about which route to take to San Francisco when everyone wants to end up there, but a lot of time gets wasted…if one person wants to go to San Fran and another secretly wants to go to San Diego.”

Many studies of group decision making and intergroup dynammics demonstrate that common goals build team cohesion by emphasizing the shared interests of team members in team outcomes. Thus team members are less likely to see themselves as individual winners or losers, minimising the likelihood of a culture of blame and destructive competition. By unifying your teams with a solid foundation of a common language, common norms, and common goals you are harnessing the power of one team. The whole becomes far greater than the sum of its parts.

Many people go along with the group regardless of what they think as individuals. Group-think prevails, facilitating a bleak environment, devoid of insight and creativity. Surround yourself with diversity in all its manifestations and take advantage of the ingenuity lying within.

Use Humour

Many studies have shown that teams that have fun have low levels of interpersonal conflict. Humour helps people distance themselves psychologically from the stress of everyday life by creating a sense of perspective. It can move decision making into a collaborative rather than competitive place through its positive effect on mood and attitude. Research demonstrates that those in a good mood tend to be not only more optimistic, but also more forgiving of others and more creative in seeking solutions. They tend to relax their defensive barriers as well and listen more effectively.

So give yourself licence to have a bit of fun!

Build the Capability for Collaborative Problem Solving

Collaborative problem solving taps the wisdom of the team. Not surprisingly teams are more committed to the solution and the outcome. It involves defining the problem, brainstorming novel possible solutions, and selecting a win-win solution. A detailed execution plan is then developed, monitored, and assessed.

Collaborative problem solving can be learnt. It includes the appropriate use of inquiry and advocacy, dialogue and debate, co-operation and teamwork. It requires listening skills, assertion skills, and dispute resolution skills, and is an essential element of any harmonious, engaged, and productive work environment.

collaboration conflict, boss magazineNot All Conflict is the Same
Of course, some types of conflict can be truly dysfunctional and it is important to distinguish between healthy and unhealthy conflict.

Healthy conflict focuses on the facts and ideas and learning. There is no room for personality or blame, resulting in open, respectful debate, and quick problem resolution. The emphasis is on the solution, not the problem.

Conversely, unhealthy conflict facilitates resentment and division by focusing on the personality and self interest. It festers, creating division and a costly draining of resources, including high levels of disengagement, absenteeism, and turnover. The trick for leaders is to encourage healthy conflict whilst discouraging unhealthy conflict.

In a 2013 Stanford University/ The Miles Group survey, CEO’s reported that the skill they most want to develop is in conflict resolution: it seems that conflict is something with which many of us are uncomfortable, yet cannot avoid. The graphic on the previous page demonstrates some tips on how to create a truly collaborative environment by encouraging and managing healthy conflict.

Ride the Wave of Conflict
Conflict is inescapable in life, at work, and at play. However, in and of itself conflict is neither good nor bad. It is how you lead and facilitate it that makes all the difference.

Leaders who nurture healthy debate also champion a rich culture of respect, teamwork, and results. They lead innovative organisations that dare to challenge the status quo.

In the end, it’s all about driving business growth, which you cannot achieve without building a team culture while ruffling a few feathers along the way.

collaboration conflict, boss magazineGraham Winter is best-selling author of five books including the newly released Think One Team: The revolutionary 90 day plan that engages staff, connects silos and transforms organisations.
He is Executive Director of Think One Team International and three-time Chief Psychologist for the Australian Olympic Team.