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As leaders, we work with teams. When bringing people together, there’s always a chance for interpersonal conflict. Regardless of how strong your team is or how strong your leadership skills are, bringing people together from a variety of backgrounds and experiences can result in conflicts, some of which are unavoidable. But there’s hope—we can focus on, and develop proficiency in, leading through conflict.
Conflict is a normal part of interpersonal relationships. They can be small and resolved instantly, or snowball into much greater problems, depending on those involved, the subject matter, and their capacity to work through differences. While this certainly has the possibility of dividing the members of your team, strong leaders with strong communication skills, a focus on honesty, and a clear appreciation of their team members will be able to mitigate conflict and rebuild the team into something stronger than ever!
One of the first things to do, and encourage in your team, is to normalize conflict. Many leaders shy away from difficult conversations, situations where conflict is guaranteed, sharing new ideas, or challenging the status quo. Progress without these challenges would be impossible, and so would developing social groups, or how people operate in team situations. Take a look at Tuckman’s Stages of Group Development. Tuckman refers to five different stages of group development, one of which is referred to as Storming. During the storming process, the organization of tasks and processes may encourage conflicts to rise to the surface. Some observable behaviours in this stage include arguments, differences in personal style and points of view, and the team organizing itself, to name a few. Tuckman highlights that the most important change that needs to occur in the Storming stage is to flip team members from a testing and proving mentality, to a problem-solving mentality. This is done through team members being willing to listen to one another. How, as leaders, can that be encouraged in our teams?
Leaders can, and should, be effective at normalizing conflict occurrence. By addressing conflicts, as they happen, with care, clarity, and communication, leaders show their teams they value their people and how they operate together. Focusing on the conflict and discussing it clearly will help all parties involved to not get mired in the conflict itself; while conflict does happen and shouldn’t be ignored, focusing on it past the solution or to the detriment of other areas of performance (even outside of work) is not a healthy approach and doesn’t allow for true problem solving. In other words, ignoring it won’t make it go away.
Leaders are also key players in defining roles on the team. This can be a point of contention during the Storming phase but can provide valuable moments to recognize team members for their unique skills and contributions to the team environment. Often, conflict is brought to the surface when people have different approaches to a task, such as one person preferring to look at a big-picture solution while another takes a focused, analytical approach, one small step at a time. Although this could result in conflicts, diverse approaches to problem solving can be powerful when working with each other, not against. In this process, leaders can also align individual values with the values of the team and organization. By providing opportunities for transparent, fearless communication, leaders will get to know the team they’re working with, and team members can understand the backgrounds and experiences their coworkers bring to the table.
The workplace can become a toxic environment when leadership doesn’t approach issues head on. By allowing conflicts to fester, not only are you permitting the growth of tension between your employees and team, but you’re losing the respect of those you lead. Managing conflict isn’t always easy, especially when an alternative is turning a blind eye, but employees value a leader that doesn’t run from problems. Avoiding tension can make a workplace look harmonious on the surface, but once we dig deeper, we see the divides created between teammates, even between team and leadership. This creates an environment of distrust and a sense that leadership is more performative and less productive. If the team senses tension, but leadership is unwilling to act, leaders will lose respect. By encouraging communication, and mitigation, if necessary, you’re approaching the issue head-on and proving to your team you value their emotional well-being.
Coming into conflict resolution with curiosity and positive intent is essential to solving the problem at hand. Often, the conflict itself isn’t the issue, but rather the reaction to the conflict. Being curious about all sides of the conflict leads to clarity around the situation, and the opportunity to develop a comprehensive solution with understanding and contributions from all. Approaching conflict with intention to support, not punish, your team is the best way to build your relationship with your employees and encourage understanding between teammates at the same time.
If we look at conflict through a lens of growth, we see what positive opportunities lie waiting on the other side. The rocky moments, the Storming phase, is when teams and leaders are being tested, and effective leaders can bring their team through the storm to the other side, stronger and more understanding thanks to the conflicts they faced.
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