Workplace conflict: you need more of it.

It’s Friday. Deadline day.

Your team has been working on this project for weeks. It was a big win for your company and all eyes are on you to get it over the line.

It’s been tough, with more than a few late nights, early mornings and email exchange in the small hours.

You’re relieved that it’s all come together so well. The bulk of the work has been done and now it’s just a case of signing off some outstanding documents. You head into the office happy that you’re going to submit on time this afternoon.

An evening out with the team and a restful weekend are looking ever so inviting.

*ping*

A text at 07:22 never bodes well.

You pull your phone out of your pocket and your heart sinks. Mike’s gone sick.

Mike is one of your senior team members and he holds a lot of responsibility. He’s pretty much your number two and is responsible for quality checking most of your junior colleagues’ work. There’s no way you do all of the quality checks yourself this close to the deadline. So, your only option is to ask someone to step up.

Sally has the skills to do the checks but she’s also pretty militant. Honestly, you could do away with all the clocks in the office and just use her to mark when the official working day starts and ends. She’s never failed to sit at her desk at exactly 9 and nothing short of welding the doors shut would stop her from leaving at 5.

You know that asking her to step up is going to cause a conflict. You’ve had difficult conversations in the past and she argues that if she’s not being paid to do it, she’s not going to do it. Thing is, when you’ve asked her to step up in the past, it’s never been this urgent or mission-critical.

However, if you’re going to get this project over the line you need her to step up. But, maybe this crisis is just what’s needed to get the best out of her now and in the future…

Why does workplace conflict happen?

Workplace conflict is inevitable. No matter what you do to try and prevent it, there’s going to be occasions where people don’t see eye to eye.

It doesn’t discriminate on role, rank or position. Colleagues in similar roles can and do argue just as much as managers and their team members. The subjects of their disagreements may be different but they’ll disagree all the same.

Workplace conflicts happen when two or more people have a mismatch in their expectations. This isn’t always as simple as a straightforward disagreement over the direction of a project or the number of meetings. Most significant and potentially game-changing conflicts have their roots in the way your colleagues see the world and communicate with one another on a more fundamental level.

Take personal ethics, for example. Sometimes, you might have to ask a colleague to do something that conflicts with their social or political values. Say your team has been given a project for a charity that advocates strongly for one side of a hot-button political issue. One of your team members holds the diametrically opposing view. This may or may not be something you were aware of but it’s inevitably going to be a source of significant conflict.

Provided the colleague puts their point across civilly and isn’t expressing extremist views, this sort of situation can put you in a tricky position. You can’t hide behind HR, policies or procedures so you’re going to have to face it head-on.

Although you probably won’t feel like it when you’re knees deep in that difficult conversation, conflict in a team is, more often than not, a good thing…

Conflict in the workplace challenges attitudes and drives change…

There’s nothing better than a peaceful, cohesive workplace where heated words are never exchanged, right?

This is the conventional wisdom however, it couldn’t be further from the truth. If you and your team never disagree, you should be worried.

Either your people aren’t communicating openly with one another and there’s a volcano of dissatisfaction and frustration simmering under the surface just waiting to explode. Or your colleagues simply don’t care.

In the case of the former, conflict will emerge eventually. It might take months or even years but one day there’s going to be a big argument. If it happens unexpectedly you won’t be able to manage or contain it. This could have dire consequences. When big rows erupt uncontrollably, people get hurt and uncomfortable disciplinary processes are just around the corner.

The latter is even more dangerous. Indifference kills innovation, performance, and quality. After all, if you don’t care about something, you’re not going to give it your best. This may result in a perpetually blissful working environment but the chances are it’ll be one devoid of growth and learning.

Conflict drives change. When your colleagues are challenged by one another as much as by their work you’ve got a fertile environment where compromise is cultivated and communication is king. Colleagues that feel safe and confident to share their views and disagree well are by definition going to be exposed to new ideas and ways of working. They won’t always agree but this is a good thing. Provided everyone understands the ground rules your team will experience immeasurable benefits from the play of lively minds.

…but unchecked workplace conflict can shatter a team

Whilst some conflict in your workplace is important for growth and development, you can have too much of a good thing.

Workplace conflict if left unchecked can shatter an otherwise cohesive and performing team. As a general rule, conflict over ideas isn’t something to worry about. However, as a leader, you should be wary if things get personal.

Interpersonal disputes can damage productivity and leave colleagues feeling demotivated and anxious. Whilst occasionally there is a need to chat with a colleague about how their attitude or way of doing things is adversely affecting the team, these conversations must always take place in a controlled environment. Unmoderated personal disputes are a recipe for disaster and can turn your office into the Somme overnight.

These conflicts don’t happen in isolation, either. They’re fuelled by gossip and office politics, neither of which are conducive to an open, efficient team. Both are insidious and have a nasty habit of sucking people in, forcing otherwise happy and productive colleagues to pick sides until everyone is squabbling and bickering like teenagers.

Some people just don’t like each other and that’s part and parcel of working life. You can’t expect everyone to get along and so long as productivity and performance aren’t affected it’s not too much to worry about. However, you can never underestimate the damage a few stray words can do. When you’re in charge, it’s your job to step in before things get out of hand without being an overbearing schoolmaster. This is a tricky path to tread but it can be done.

Trust your instincts. Or, if you want to be safe, invest in some communication training…

Healthy, moderated workplace conflict boosts performance and attracts talent

A team that conflicts well is a team that is operating at peak efficiency.

But, you need to keep things healthy and ego-free. Essentially, you want to act as an umpire who keeps the best interests of your organisation in mind. When two personalities meet in disagreement, potentially one party isn’t going to get their way. If this happens it’s your job to rally your team and keep things moving forwards.

Conflict promotes open-mindedness and allows your people to think creatively. When they feel safe and trust one another they’ll freely voice their opinions and get to the root cause of issues sooner. As a result, your team won’t keep silent through fear of speaking out. This will lead to healthier relationships between colleagues and teams because they’ll be able to release pent up frustrations in a controlled and respectful manner.

This sort of environment not only boosts results in and of itself, but it also attracts the very best people. Good people don’t just want to punch the clock and claim their salary. They want to influence the big picture, step up, take responsibility and get things done. These individuals don’t do well on teams with a ‘know your place’ attitude towards communication. They need to feel heard and have an outlet in their peers to actively test their ideas. If your team develops a reputation for welcoming healthy conflict, you’ll morph into a magnet for these star players.

Are you ready for more healthy conflict?

Workplace conflict is going to happen. There’s no avoiding it. But it’s up to you to make sure that when it happens in your team, it’s healthy and productive.

Understanding how to make conflict safe and productive is a skill. Like any other skill, it can be practiced and improved. However, conflict is a loaded word with a negative reputation that it doesn’t deserve. Therefore, there aren’t many courses out there that will give you the tools and techniques you need to leverage division to your advantage.

Our Difficult Conversations workshops equip you with the skills and knowledge you need to deliver difficult messages and foster productive conflict in your team.

They’re not for the faint of heart. The information we’ll give you is powerful and can drive real, positive change within your team. However, if you try to leverage conflict in your team without fully committing to the principles you’ll learn at the workshop it’s not going to end well.

That’s why if you’re interested in attending a Difficult Conversations workshop we’ll need to have a conversation of our own first.

Originally published at https://www.juicingthelemon.com on March 23, 2020.

Passionate about helping people have difficult conversations with kindness and clarity that drive a change in behaviour and performance both at home and work.