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4 Strategies for Fostering Constructive Conflict

by Stefanie Mockler on

For the last two weeks, we have discussed the benefits of teams engaging in constructive conflict and described a framework to understand types of conflict that occur in team settings. Some types of conflict are at the core of what it takes for teams to thrive, so let’s start going after the good stuff. Let’s talk about some action items – specifically, as a team leader or manager, what can you do to foster an environment where constructive conflict can exist and flourish?

Inspired by our work with top management teams as well as an HBR article detailing how teams can have a good fight, we’ve identified four conflict management strategies you can leverage to encourage your team to engage in the right types of conflict:

1. Call out the unique value each individual team member brings to the table

Team members are more likely to support one another and less likely to compete if their “needs for uniqueness” are met. For example, Tom may be great at organizing and reporting out meeting notes, while Mia is skilled at facilitating conversation among the group. Highlight these assets and leverage them when the team is working together

Remember: It’s important to value individuality but don’t forget to tie it into the group’s goals. Too much uniqueness might compromise alignment between group members.

2. Find appropriate ways to use humor

Having fun and laughing creates a safe psychological space; people don’t get defensive if they are not feeling threatened. This can minimize the chances people will take questioning personally.

Remember: We’re not suggesting you try to be the funniest person your team’s ever met (we’ve all seen The Office – this tactic rarely goes well); the goal here is to facilitate a positive, light-hearted mood. Subtle (and even self-deprecating) humor can provide a safe way to relieve tension without needing to test out risqué jokes.

3. Identify, and continuously reinforce, a shared group goal

Connecting over a shared, higher-level goal helps individual members identify with the team as they all have stakes in a shared fate. For example, a team may be rewarded for completing a project ahead of a deadline – each member still has their own responsibilities, but being rewarded as a team and receiving feedback as a team can redirect members to focus on shared responsibility.

Remember: Ensuring each team member’s responsibilities are clearly tied to the overall task will help facilitate healthy debate among members, and the team will constructively challenge the means for achieving those goals as a single entity.

4. Balance the power distribution

Rather than having one assigned leader or final decision-maker, it can be beneficial for the team to share decision-making power. Shared accountability for decisions can increase the likelihood that all voices will be heard in times of conflict, thus finding a solution will be a more transparent process.

Remember: All members should be given a voice for something. If the leader of a team is able to solicit others’ perspective on important decisions, the leader will empower others and distribute ownership. Especially for complex tasks that require creativity or critical thinking, people are more motivated by feeling competent and empowered than they are by money.

 

All said, conflict can and should be used as a tool to promote healthy debate and disruptive thinking, as well as a proactive attempt to build team trust and cohesion. It is necessary and fundamental for a leader to actively pursue conflict without compromising the team’s trust (for more on team trust, look at some of our lessons learned).

Deliberately using conflict as a tool and neutrally anticipating conflict as a part of the equation to developing a high performing team is a strategy the best team leaders have mastered.

Have you experienced ROI on addressing conflict in your team?

Who is your role model for handling conflict and why?

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