Darryl Stewart
By Darryl Stewart
image of contrasting colors on paintbrushes to represent conflict in a group

Conflict is good for your team

Good relationships require conflict in order to grow. This is true in all lasting relationships. With our parents, with our life partners, and with our friends we all seem to know that “having it out” occasionally is important and healthy. Respectful conflict releases dangerous tension. It helps us to understand the other person’s point of view and to be more empathetic. It helps us to change and adapt our perspective.

At work, many people are less convinced that conflict is healthy. In fact, it seems like people go to great lengths to avoid conflict in the workplace.

Why do people tend to avoid conflict at work? Because they:

  • are afraid to hurt other people’s feelings;
  • feel it is taboo to be too open;
  • feel conflict is wasteful and inefficient;
  • think it is disrespectful of authority, and;
  • think it is a sign of poor teamwork.

Far from any of these things, the right kind of conflict is the hallmark of a great team. Good conflict is informed disagreement over concepts and ideas, as opposed to negative sniping over interpersonal issues and minutiae.

Most teams never get to the point where they can have open productive conflict, but for those that do, the advantage is getting to the best possible solution in the shortest period of time. Once the pattern is established, the team gets used to hashing it out passionately and emerging with issues resolved quickly and completely, and without residual negative feelings or interpersonal damage.

Our role as the leader of the team is to promote heathy conflict.

We do it by:

  • acknowledging that respectful conflict is productive;
  • “mining” for conflict with members of the team who tend to avoid conflict;
  • dealing promptly with any misconduct that is harmful to open discourse, like bullying or name calling;
  • stepping in if someone becomes uncomfortable with the conflict, reminding them that what they are doing is important and appreciated, and;
  • staying objective and committed to solving the issue and not letting the discussion end because people are backing off the conflict.

Our desire as leaders to protect people from harm often leads to premature interruption of conflicts. This reduces the quality of the solution and stops our team from developing the coping skills for dealing with conflict.

Adapted from, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, by Patrick Lencioni