In prior Vantage blogs, we have discussed the benefits of teams engaging in constructive conflict and described a framework for understanding the 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 as a team leader or manager, what can you do to foster an environment where this type of constructive conflict can exist and flourish?

More specifically, we’ve recently been exploring how to help leaders create conditions for constructive conflict in a hybrid working context. How can teams engage in constructive conflict through video chat, or when some are individuals are in-person and others are remote? These are highly relevant challenges—and from our vantage point, they’re here to stay.

As a trusted colleague aptly reminded me: it’s way easier to fade into the background and disengage when you’re on Zoom versus in-person. This is a huge risk for organizations as it means that good thinking, ideas, and perspective may get left behind.

Several years ago, we identified and wrote about four conflict management strategies to leverage to engage your team in the right types of conflict. Now, we’re taking a fresh look at these strategies and updating them to reflect the new reality for many: working in a hybrid manner.

1. Call out the unique value each individual team member brings, and assign roles accordingly to create conditions for healthy conflict.

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, and Tanya enjoys summarizing the group’s thinking and specifying next steps. Highlight these assets and leverage them when the team is working together.

How can we apply this in a hybrid world? In some ways, ensuring roles and responsibilities are clear is even more important when connecting through virtual means. You know those moments in a video meeting where you want to say something, but everyone is muted and it’s awkward to speak up? Yeah, us too.

If one person is a designated facilitator, they can ensure everyone has an opportunity to share their thinking and challenge others’ perspectives appropriately. Try out a ‘round robin’ where the facilitator invites input one-by-one and then summarizes to drive the conversation forward. Or, use breakout rooms to your advantage by asking small groups to discuss more difficult topics and then come back to share insights with the broader group. This should also minimize groupthink, help drive inclusion, and ensure a variety of perspectives are brought forward.

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.

Creating conditions where your team can have fun, laugh, and engage in light-hearted ways – in a virtual context or otherwise – are components to creating a safe psychological space. People don’t tend to react in defensive ways if they feel safe, supported, and are not feeling threatened. This can minimize the chances people will take questioning and debate – key tenets of constructive conflict – personally.

How can we apply this in a hybrid world? Remember that about 70% of communication is nonverbal, and it can be harder to pick up on nonverbal cues in a virtual context. If you use humor to lighten the mood, and it makes someone uncomfortable or has unintended impact, how will you know? Asking people to use video, keeping team meetings small enough that you can ‘read the room,’ and being extra thoughtful with regard to what you share and how you share it are all strategies to leverage. Positioning yourself as open to candid feedback – a best practice for every leader – will also help ensure humor is being deployed in the right way.

Remember: We’re not suggesting you try to be the funniest person your team has 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, inappropriate, or harmful 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 collective 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.

When encouraging conditions for constructive conflict, continually remind the team that “we’re in it together.”  Because we’re on the hook for shared outcome, it’s upon us to openly and directly challenge one another to ensure we’re making the best decisions.

How can we apply this in a hybrid world? Exactly the same way: no changes here. Keep on sharing, reinforcing, and rewarding team goals!

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. This makes finding a solution a more transparent and open process.

How can we apply this in a hybrid world? Consider rotating roles for leading meetings, setting the agenda, and sending pre-work to provide context for the team’s conversations. This will empower each person to really own the outcome and show up ready to discuss and engage, thus encouraging conditions for healthy debate and conflict.

Remember: All members should be given a voice for somethingIf 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 fundamental for a leader to actively pursue conflict without compromising trust (for more on that, look at some of our lessons learned). Doing so requires understanding how to productively operate across various contexts (in-person, virtually, and in situations that blend the two).

Deliberately using conflict as a tool and neutrally anticipating it 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?

Have a team that could use a little extra work? We’re here to help.


This blog has been updated from a previous version.