Managing Conflict at Work with Strategies that Actually Work
Conflict at work can be a really good thing. It can raise new ideas, encourage new solutions, and even build trust and drive connection. Conflict at work can also be a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad thing. It can destroy morale, erode trust, and ruin relationships.
How can you and your team engage in conflict in a healthy, productive way? In this blog you’ll learn three evidence-based strategies that actually work and that I have seen used firsthand as a Certified Mediator — so let’s get started!
Strategy 1: Normalize Conflict at Work
The first strategy to healthy and productive conflict is to normalize conflict at work. According to the Harvard Business Review, the most important first step for any organization regarding conflict is to normalize conflict.
In organizations that have normalized healthy productive conflict, colleagues and teams are more likely to engage in tough conversations. When organizations and teams have not normalized conflict, it is more likely that conflict will be avoided or minimized.
Organizations and teams can normalize conflict in following ways: establish ground rules for engaging in conflict; model healthy, productive conflict; and celebrate conflict when it plays a role in leading to better, more inclusive outcomes.
Establish conflict ground rules
Having a set of ground rules or team agreements about what is OK and not OK during conflict sets the foundation for healthy conversations. For example, a team might have a ground rule that says it is OK to disagree, but it is not OK to be unkind. This allows team members to focus on the content of the conversation and the pursuit of good ideas.
It is important to note that a leader’s experience of conflict may likely trickle down to their team and to the entire organization. Leaders who avoid or minimize conflict may find themselves modeling that behavior throughout the organization.
Model healthy, productive conflict
Another way that organizations can normalize conflict is by modeling healthy, productive conflict, which is important because organizations and teams will have set themselves up for success when conflict happens.
As conflict sometimes crops up during meetings, creating time and space on an agenda when there is a difficult and important topic can allow more thoughtful debate and discussion. Agendas that are jam packed are setting a team up to fail by not providing adequate time and space for discussion, debate, and resolution.
Additionally, researchers from the University of Amsterdam and Carnegie Mellon conducted a meta-analysis of task versus relationship conflict, team performance, and team member satisfaction. They found that conflict had stronger negative relations with team performance in highly complex (decision making, project, mixed) than in less complex (production) tasks.
A third way to normalize conflict at work is to celebrate the kind of conflict an organization wants to see. If co-workers engage in a healthy productive conflict during a meeting that results in a new idea or forward movement, don't let that moment slip by. Take a few moments to celebrate the conflict that occurred and to acknowledge how the outcome of that conversation is better than if the conversation had been avoided.
Strategy 2: Create a Shared Language around Conflict
Conflict can mean many things to many people. Teams that create a cohesive shared language around conflict are much more likely to be successful during difficult conversations. In her book Dare to Lead, Dr. Brené Brown uses the term ‘rumble,’ which she describes as a discussion, conversation, or meeting defined by a commitment to:
- Lean into vulnerability;
- Stay curious and generous;
- Stick with the messy middle of problem identification and solving;
- Take a break and circle back when necessary;
- Be fearless and owning our parts; and
- Listen with the same passion with which we want to be heard (as psychologist Harriet Lerner teaches).
Dr. Brown further writes that, “When someone says ‘let's rumble’ it cues me to show up with an open heart and mind so we can serve the work and each other, not our egos.”
Strategy 3: Provide Trust Training and Conflict Training
In order for organizations and team members to engage in healthy, productive conflict, training will likely be necessary. In addition to providing conflict skills training, it is important that organizations also provide trust-building training as well. In fact, trust training should be offered before any conflict training to build psychological safety among employees.
In her book The Fearless Organization, Dr. Amy Edmonson describes psychological safety in the workplace as, “The belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes, and the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.” This is the exact environment that will cultivate healthy, productive conflict.
If organizations only provide conflict training without a foundation of trust or psychological safety, it is unlikely to be successful. In fact, it may even do more harm.
Conclusion and Resources
There is no magic bullet for conflict and no secret recipe that if an organization just does a few things in the same order every time they will get the same results — Conflict is more complicated than that. However, by putting these three strategies into place, organizations and teams are setting themselves up for healthy, productive conflict that can serve the organization, its teams, and its employees well.
Here are some additional resources:
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