Skip to content

How to Help Teams Turn Conflict Into a Superpower

Working in HR means working with conflict. Often that conflict appears in our inbox or at our office door because it’s reached a stage at which it feels unmanageable to one or more of those involved.

When it lands there, we can find ourselves cast as mediator or referee. I’m sure that I’m not the only one who finds this to be a source of professional frustration; a firefighter called to the scene only after the flames have spread to adjacent buildings.

Whether it’s the common personal aversion to conflict that many of us have, or today’s prevailing corporate culture that prioritizes harmony, cohesion, and compromise over sometimes uncomfortable debate, the result is frequently conflict avoidance until things boil over, and then pressure to reach a resolution as quickly as possible.

This strategy of reactive suppression is all too common, and tends to result in a superficial, temporary peace, as well as a loss of trust between the involved parties.

We should all be interested in doing better.

Conflict Isn’t Always Bad

It isn’t a secret that conflict has its benefits. And yet it seems to me that most of us are only comfortable with this notion in the abstract. We imagine civilized debates about ideas, not having to question our own assumptions, open our cherished ideas to critique, or explore unsettlingly different viewpoints.

But to realize the benefits of conflict, these are exactly the steps we must take. As Roger L Martin said at a recent talk on integrative thinking:

“It’s tempting to look for areas of agreement and ignore points of difference, but that catches up with you. It’s in the differences and tension that we can find a better answer. “

Martin points to our education system as a factor that makes this so difficult for most of us:

“We always learn in school that there is one right answer so we tend to view those with a different view than ours as wrong. That seems to manifest as a fear to try to learn anything from them or empathize, in case we become like them.”

There are good reasons for our organizations to tackle this. As Adam Grant notes:

“If no one ever argues, you’re not likely to give up on old ways of doing things, let alone try new ones. Disagreement is the antidote to groupthink.”

“The Beatles fought over instruments and lyrics and melodies. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony clashed over the right way to win the right to vote. Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak argued incessantly while designing the first Apple computer. None of these people succeeded in spite of the drama — they flourished because of it. Brainstorming groups generate 16 percent more ideas when the members are encouraged to criticize one another.”

But It Isn’t Always Good

Conflict harnessed correctly can have powerful benefits. But without the channels and skills to constructively manage it, conflict can spiral out of control and paralyze teams.

Olaf Bach of Management Kits writes:

“Yes, conflict can positively impact team performance. And yes, some level and some kind of conflict in your team is better than no conflict at all. However, the relationship between team conflict and team performance is a tricky one. To make matters worse, interpersonal conflict carries significant emotional cost, so there’s a natural tendency to avoid it.”

As many of us will have experienced in HR, there’s conflict and then there’s conflict. We’re far more likely to see disagreements that, even if they began as differing views about some aspect of work, have become personal and emotionally charged.

Bach notes that there are two types of conflict:

“In principle, research into team conflict distinguishes task conflict (about work priorities, approaches, etc.) and relationship conflict (about personalities, styles, personal traits). Task conflict has been shown to have a positive impact on team performance. The argument goes that if you don’t fight at all about how to solve a task in your group, people are probably complacent and don’t care about the best solution. However, this relationship appears to be inverse U shaped with growing tension: whereas a total lack of task conflict makes the team members complacent, too much task conflict makes working together difficult and brings team problem solving to a halt. This is because very intense task conflicts easily become personal. When this happens, task conflict turns into relationship conflict.”

And yet, in our eagerness to see debate rapidly result in agreement, rather than sit with friction and have trust that we’ll come out the other side, it’s been my experience that managers are quick to label ongoing friction as a sign of interpersonal issues.

A very wise OD practitioner who I had the good fortune to work alongside once told me that this is rarely the case. That even if a conflict had now taken on personal overtones, that it was far more likely to have its root in a lack of understanding or alignment on shared goals, a lack of role clarity, a lack of confidence in a team’s leader, or frustrating processes (like decision making or communication). His approach was to dig into these things first, before wading into the ambiguous area of “personality conflict”.

Exploring these other areas (shared goals, role clarity, leadership confidence, and process) means surfacing assumptions and conflicting views, debating their merits, and arriving at a common understanding and approach that the group members can live with (if not enthusiastically agree upon). These might include what Thoreson and Smets refer to as “task behaviours” like:

“…seeking information and clarification, challenging/disagreeing with one another and so on. Who will record notes? How are decisions to be made and under what circumstances?”

Be Proactive

Defining the way that a group will debate these different approaches to doing their work in advance, and addressing conflict as it arises isn’t something that necessarily feels natural for groups, but it can pay big dividends.

Because it isn’t enough to say you’ll be transparent and use conflict constructively. Without an approach determined in advance, less assertive voices won’t be heard when there is a disagreement, and a blanket commitment to debate ideas has the potential to be interpreted as a license to aggressively advocate for one’s position (rather than consent to engage in an open-minded, collaborative discussion). It’s very popular for progressive organizations to embrace radical candor these days, but if not managed deliberately this can be interpreted as permission to ignore the impact of our words and actions on others.

How to Help Teams Have Better Conflicts

  • Start with yourself. Examine your own assumptions about conflict and consider the unspoken signals you’re giving to managers and employees who talk to you about conflicts their experiencing.
  • In reactive mode: If your suddenly called on by a manager or employee to assist with resolving a conflict, talk with them about the different types of conflict (task and relationship) and explore whether there might be situational or environmental factors at the root of a conflict that at first seems interpersonal.
  • Be proactive: help the teams you support to develop a conflict management approach early, before they need it, by defining ground rules for surfacing and addressing task and relationship conflicts.
  • Prepare your managers and their teams to sense potential conflict early and, where appropriate, reframe it as a debate, rather than a conflict.
  • Make those debates constructive and safer by using a framework like Roger Martin and Jennifer Reil’s integrative thinking approach:
    • Frame a debate or conflict as a choice between two binary options
    • Once you have defined two opposing models, see if you can push them even further apart as a thought experiment to see what is revealed.
    • Focus on falling in love with those extremes in turn, thinking about only the upside of each.
    • Ask better question “I wonder/…” “Is it possible that…” to surface possibilities.
    • What’s important in each of these options? How can a third option offer benefits from each? Don’t start with compromise or you’ll skip over the value of this process.
  • Ensure that managers and HR model constructive conflict. As Adam Grant suggests:
    • Argue as if you’re right but listen as if you’re wrong.
    • Make the most respectful interpretation of the other person’s perspective.
    • Acknowledge where you agree with your critics and what you’ve learned from them.

What else have you learned from helping others navigate conflict?

Read this week

Nope Nope Nope 🙅 – NOBL Collective Newsletter

I subscribe to NOBL Collective’s weekly newsletter and love the ever more practical direction it’s headed. This week the topic was “Cultures of No”.

“When we work with large enterprises, we sometimes confront cultures of “No.” Not the strategic “no”, not even the occasional “no”, but a reflexive “no.” An automatic and unconscious rejection of new ideas and new approaches.

Start by acknowledging that systems operate for a reason, even if it’s an unhealthy one. You can’t reverse the course of culture through optimism and cheer alone (but those do help). You have to confront the root causes.”

NOBL offers six suggestions to address cultures of no. My favorite is:

“Is saying “yes” rewarded? Culture is the shared reality of work and that reality is shaped by the behaviors that are invited and rewarded. Cultures of “no” often cater most to the detractors, but change is borne on the backs of the willing. Celebrate the team members willing to explore the unknown with you.”

How We Nudged Employees to Embrace Flexible Work – HBR, Wiryakusuma, Chai, King, and Pointer

Fascinating look at a project to in Australia to apply behavioural economics nudges to get employees to adopt flexible work policies. Why would anyone resist flexible work options you might ask? Their research showed three important behavioural barriers:

  1. Social norms.
  2. Staff perceptions of managers’ acceptance. Employees report that they are worried about being negatively judged by their managers if they ask for flexible hours, despite most managers saying they would view it positively.
  3. Individual life styles and habits. Commuting is known to be one of the “stickiest,” most resilient habits that we have.

The project implemented three interventions intended to address these:

  • Intervention #1: Changing default settings in Microsoft Outlook calendars
  • Intervention #2: Prompting managers to discuss and model flexible working.
  • Intervention #3: Using a competition to disrupt habits.

These changes resulted in a 3.3% (intervention 1 & 2) and 7.7% (intervention 3) increase in adoption, even 2 months after it ended.

I love how this illustrates how simple these experiments can be, and how easily this approach might be applied to this or similar initiatives in organizations.
Image credit: Photo by James Pond on Unsplash


No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: