Just the word can make even the most confident and assured of us at least a little uncomfortable. So the idea of embracing – sometimes even encouraging – workplace conflict as a strategic leadership practice is one many managers, especially new ones, struggle with.
One school of thought professes that workplace conflict is always good, emphasizing that different points of view help a team make better decisions and constructively challenge one another. A recent Harvard Business Review article, “Why We Should Be Disagreeing More at Work,” points out that disagreements are an inevitable, normal, and healthy part of relating to other people. Indeed, there is no conflict-free workplace.
But even those who believe that more is better when it comes to conflict will admit that opposing others’ core beliefs and opinions is not risk-free. Depending on the culture of your organization and how debate is viewed, challenging a colleague’s position may lead to hurt feelings, seclusion, and even retaliation.
In reality, conflict is neither inherently good nor bad.
If it’s a concern that’s causing key performance metrics – growth, quality, efficiency, or staff engagement – to trend in the wrong direction, it’s probably the right time to surface the issue.
In our work with leaders, we’ve seen that learning when and how to constructively lean into conflict is one of the most important skills for long-term success. It also is among the most nuanced and advanced leadership competencies. Following are three key questions that can help leaders think through and navigate the tricky waters of disagreement.
Is this the right time to surface the issue?
Smart leaders choose their battles, prioritizing those issues that have the most significant, immediate impact on the organization. If it’s a concern that’s causing key performance metrics – growth, quality, efficiency, or staff engagement – to trend in the wrong direction, it’s probably the right time to surface the issue. But if it’s not already on the radar of your leadership team, starting with a private conversation with the colleague who has the most direct responsibility usually works best. Linking the issue to your sphere of influence and/or bringing new information or insights to the table that will help benefit your leadership team can be a good place to start.
Will confronting the conflict actually improve my relationship with my colleagues?
An unaddressed undercurrent of ongoing conflict isn’t good for anyone. Differences of opinion on key strategic or operational issues tend to intensify and fester over time when not confronted. Feelings of frustration, resentment, and detachment are often expressed in alternative, unfavorable ways. Be thoughtful about language choices when addressing the conflict, testing the waters instead of diving into the deep end of the pool. In other words, “I have some concerns about this aspect of our strategy,” works better than, “I think we’re going in the wrong direction.”
Is this really any of my business?
Large organizations are not democracies, and everyone can’t weigh in on every issue. Many years ago, I worked with an executive who developed the reputation for having strong opinions on everyone else’s areas of responsibility. Whether it was marketing, payer strategies, supply chain or quality, he was always ready to share how he believed things could be done better or differently. It’s not surprising that his colleagues began to shy away from including him in conversations or meetings. Being both thoughtful and selective about when and how we weigh in on others’ responsibilities increases trust and constructive collaboration. It also may encourage others to ask for our opinion on issues a little more often.
Surfacing different perspectives and conflicting ideas is something highly-functioning leadership teams learn to embrace to make the best decisions. Conflict works because they understand that dealing with disagreement successfully is as much about managing relationships as it is about finding the ideal strategic or operational direction to pursue. To effectively navigate the nuances of conflicts, skilled leaders prospectively think about when and how to rock-the-boat to achieve the best short- and long-term outcomes for the organization.
Stamp & Chase offers unexpected solutions to challenges of employee burnout, retention, and disengagement that many leading organizations are facing today. If you’d like to learn more about our robust tools and approaches that help leaders transform staff engagement by developing middle managers, send us a message here.