Not all conflict is good conflict. Not all conflict is bad conflict.
Get clear on the differences between constructive conflict and destructive conflict. Constructive conflict results in clarification of issues and solutions to problems, enables authentic communication, releases emotion, anxiety and stress, and helps individuals develop understanding and resolution skills. Destructive conflict undermines morale and relationships, polarizes people and groups, reducing collaboration, increases or aggravates differences and gets expressed by either escalating the conflict or avoiding it by walking away.
Here is a great video that walks through the five golden rules of conflict.
Here are 3 watch-outs when it comes to conflict:
- A leader’s style of conflict impacts culture. Leaders’ words and actions set the rules for conflict. Understand which style you lean towards, and how that tendency affects others. We’ve worked with many leaders who have an avoiding style that impacted their culture because they weren’t willing to address the 800-pound gorilla in the room. Other leaders were explosive in their expressions during conflict, which created an environment where their team “went underground” with anything that could provoke a reaction.
- The Culture of Nice. In several not-for-profits we worked with, they had a Christmas Card Culture (just like a Christmas card which only shares the happy news). This creates an environment of buried conflict which has deep-reaching consequences. Things aren’t discussed and resolved so eventually people erupt or leave.
- Generational misidentification of conflict. There are some members from younger generations who are prone to favor harmony above all else. We worked with a team of millennials who talked about how terrible the conflict was within the leadership team. This created great puzzlement in the leaders because they felt they were a healthy team that had differences but resolved things effectively. Once we did some deeper digging, we realized that anything less than complete peace and agreement on anything was misidentified as harmful conflict. We recommend educating your team on what conflict is and is not. Then provide tools on how to address it. Unfortunately, this is a skill set left undeveloped for most people as they grow up. Get intentional and help your team succeed in conflict.
Constructive conflict is not fun, but the results are always worthwhile. Leaders need to be intentional about how conflict is viewed and whether destructive conflict is permitted. When leaders understand their style and embrace constructive conflict they will enable the energy of the conflict to emerge into meaningful outcomes.