People often avoid difficult situations or confrontation but effective leaders leverage healthy conflict to get the most out of teams.
by Ave Rio
August 17, 2017
To reach our full potential, we need a little more conflict in our lives, provided it comes with productive dialogue.
“I don’t believe as a society we have truly learned how to have difficult conversations,” said Doug Upchurch, chief learning architect at Insights. “And it’s in part because of that, that we see so much divisiveness in our world.”
Employees must be able to have those conversations and be an example, not just for organizations, but for wider society, he said. Chief learning officers and leaders can help improve this problem by encouraging healthy conflict and modeling productive dialogue to their employees.
Upchurch said how people handle conflict determines whether it is healthy or unhealthy. A healthy response involves several factors, he said. It should be public, confronted directly, seek to move to resolution and it should consider each person’s personal experience, as not everyone responds to conflict in the same way.
Leveraging Healthy Conflict
Mary Scannell, corporate trainer and author of “The Big Book of Conflict Resolution Games: Quick, Effective Activities to Improve Communication, Trust and Collaboration” said to have healthy conflict, you must have trust on a team.
“Without a foundation of trust, I would question whether the conflict would be possible to be healthy,” she said. “When you are engaged in a dialogue with someone you trust, even if people come to that dialogue with differing perspectives, they should be able to safely share those ideas if a leader has fostered a foundation of trust.”
Upchurch echoed that as well.
“When a team feels a higher sense of trust, and a sense of emotional safety or cohesion, team members are more engaged and more willing to contribute to the work that they do, and they are able to get more done in less time.”
Upchurch said another way learning leaders can manage conflict is to understand the unique personality and psychological differences in the way each person on their team responds to conflict.
Perhaps the most important skills that leaders can have, Upchurch said, is the ability to identify and manage your own emotions and the emotions of others. He said the primary reason leaders derail is not because of the lack of skills or knowledge, but a lack of emotional intelligence.
“Business leaders often look to learning and HR leaders to make sure we’re creating opportunities to develop not just the hard knowledge skills, but those that we’ve historically referred to as soft,” he said. “The skills of empathy, the skills of leading both with technology and the heart, the skills of being human in the workplace.”
He said making sure that there are opportunities for leaders to be developed in that way is critical so learning leaders can model that approach to healthy conflict. Leaders need to do work on themselves and be fully comfortable in difficult emotional situations, he added.
Scannell said the lack of role models is usually what stops employees from having difficult conversations.
“As leaders we have to set the stage,” she said. “If we are unwilling to engage in healthy conflict around ideas with other leaders, and if they don’t see us navigating those kinds of conversations effectively, they’re not going to understand how it’s done.”
But Scannell said after modeling the correct behavior, leaders should take a step back.
“Sometimes leaders feel they have to fix everything, but sometimes a team needs to work through the gunk,” she said. “A leader might feel like they have the solution for conflict and they might have one, yet sometimes as a leader or an educator, we need to let people work through that themselves.”
That said, if it is degenerating into an unhealthy situation, it’s time to to facilitate a positive dialogue, she said. In the cases where conflict turns unhealthy, Upchurch said it’s important for leaders to prevent any behavior that might be seen as bullying or aggressive and to try and bring it out of the emotional space to the factual space.
The Benefits of Healthy Conflict
Upchurch said the two main benefits of healthy conflict are innovation and improvement.
“Organizations that don’t experience diverse opinions, which often create intellectual debate and conflict, tend to be stuck,” he said. “A trait of an effective leader in today’s workplace is the ability to both pioneer and embrace disruption.”
Another value is building cohesive teams, Upchurch said.
“Teams that work the best together are the ones that have endured conflict together,” he said. “Almost every time you can look back at the defining moments a team had and there will be some kind of conflict.”
Upchurch said the third benefit is learning.
“By allowing for a healthy response to conflict, we can grow intellectually and with our skills,” he said. “So often we think we have all the answers, but conflict typically is a result of someone thinking they have a different response or a different answer.”
Upchurch said learning leaders should help people have better conversations and allow them to have dialogue that moves them to meet the strategic purposes of the company in an environment where it’s safe to express diverse opinions and conflict.
A team of diverse individuals, each with their own unique strengths, might butt up against each other, but if leaders can allow those strengths to flourish and work together, they will get the most out of the team, Scannell said.
“You’re going to be able to leverage a team that is working to their strengths and appreciated for those strengths instead of knocked down because it doesn’t align with another person’s ideas.”
Ave Rio is Chief Learning Officer’s associate editor. Comment below or email firstname.lastname@example.org.