TalentLeadership DevelopmentHow to tackle unhealthy team conflict by valuing difference

How to tackle unhealthy team conflict by valuing difference

Team dynamics are incredibly important within the workplace. But what happens when there are obvious divides and clashes in personalities? Andy Lothian looks at how to understand and resolve unhealthy conflict within teams.

Throughout our careers we learn behaviours that serve our development as people and professionals. One learned behaviour that can seem like it’s serving you – but isn’t – revolves around our perception of conflict. In the workplace, it is all too easy for professionals to take part in a polite dance every day, gliding around colleagues without ever intruding or upsetting the status quo that they have learned to protect.

However, lack of conflict isn’t a good sign for a team’s health or an organisation’s performance. Granted, leaders shouldn’t set out to create conflict, but they should be concerned if they never see it.

A team’s success is inherently underpinned by the benefits that come from difference. Different personalities, different ways of thinking, different strengths, and different approaches all benefit the overall output. And that output can often be more powerful than that which an individual might achieve on their own.

A place for conflict

It’s important to distinguish between healthy and unhealthy forms of conflict. Difference can quickly lead to division if unhealthy conflict arises. Why? Largely because conflict is uncomfortable. This discomfort causes us to contort ourselves in dysfunctional ways – we ignore it, let it fester, lay blame internally or make judgements externally. Sometimes we even half-tackle it and hope it will resolve itself.

But what we should be doing instead is focusing on understanding the root cause behind opposing views and then finding ways to understand where one another is coming from to overcome the area of disagreement. Unfortunately, the need to be liked, the pursuit of acceptance and the desire for stability are often bigger instinctive urges than understanding and adapting to one another.

As leaders, though, it’s our job to engender enough trust in the team that people don’t shy away from the difficult conversations. Here are some principles to guide your team members in tackling unhealthy team conflict:

  • Know thyself!

The journey behind overcoming any conflict begins with an understanding of self and of those around you. Making an in-depth assessment of both yourself and those you work with is a great first step to connecting and ultimately reducing unhealthy conflict. Learning solutions that use personality assessment models, can help identify your interpersonal preferences, which are a powerful and effective way to help everyone in the team understand its dynamics. Whilst these processes often employ frameworks of personality type and trait, they are not there to label, rather they are about understanding that everyone has a different, equally valid world view that guides their beliefs and behaviours.

  • Live out loud

It takes courage to understand yourself and to live fully as yourself. Although it may cause conflict to be ourselves at all times, when we rein in our instincts we start losing our authenticity. When we’re not being ourselves, our relationships suffer over the long-term.

To combat this in team environments, leaders must foster openness by creating space for people to be themselves and voice their true opinions. Inviting real face to face conversations may result in some uncomfortable moments, but it will save your team the pain that will inevitably come if you gloss over the real issues.

Be willing to face into and acknowledge potential negative reactions, without judgement. It’s a necessary part of finding the courage to engage in meaningful dialogue. Living out loud doesn’t mean that things will never bother you or that you will never bother others, it means, when they do, you have the awareness to lean into the conflict with respect, honestly and a commitment to finding a positive outcome.

  • Rediscover your human skills

You may be hearing or reading what your colleagues have to say, but are you really listening to them? Are you checking your phone while you wait for the person speaking to stop talking? One culprit of conflict comes when you’ve checked out as a human being. You can’t be a robot if you want to get through conflict.

So, begin by assuming positive intent, and consider not just the message, but the messenger and the drivers for their perspective. Understanding those perspectives will reveal how you can resolve whatever conflict has arisen as you work to truly understand them. At its root, this is about respecting our humanity and its main ingredients: understanding, compassion and tolerance. Get the empathy part right – begin to value these differences – and the other reasons for conflict will feel easier to handle.

When there’s no debate, there are no new ideas forming. When there’s no disagreement, there are probably things going unsaid. For the health of the team and organisation, build an environment where it’s okay, even good for something to upset the applecart now and again.

About Andy Lothian

EY Entrepreneur for the Year for Scotland in 2016, Andy Lothian, CEO of Insights Group, is dedicated to the connection between personal development and business development.

Andy founded Insights Learning and Development with his father, Andi Lothian, more than 20 years ago and has turned a two-man operation into a successful global development company. Andy is passionately committed to enabling profound people development, whether for the organisation’s clients or employees.

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