The ability to manage conflicts within a team can make all the difference between having a happy, productive team – and one that can barely function. Let’s imagine you’re the manager of a team that’s about to start work on a major new project – and let’s consider the two following scenarios:
Scenario 1You arrive at work, full of energy and ready to kick off Project X. You’re excited, because you know your team is full of diverse talent and brimming with different perspectives. You know that you’ll challenge one another constructively and that your fresh thinking today could eventually take the whole company in new directions…
You walk into the office feeling weary, even though it’s only 8.30 am. You see Bob in the distance and try not to catch his eye, fearing he’ll start arguing even before the Project X kick-off meeting begins. Your stomach starts to spasm – after all, it’s not just Bob who’s going to be tricky. You already know that some of your team members will just sit quietly all day, looking at their hands or checking their e-mails. And the rest of them can never agree on anything. You’ll be in the middle of it all, trying to get something useful out of the day…
In both of these scenarios, your team members may be motivated, technically competent and passionate. But in scenario 1, everyone is comfortable with conflict and knows how to manage it. Barney Jordaan, Professor of Management Practice specialising in Negotiation, Conflict Management and Mediation at Vlerick, says: “It’s like the saying: What do conflict and oysters have in common? The answer is: A little irritation can produce a thing of beauty.”
But this scenario-1-thing-of-beauty situation can only come about when everyone on the team understands that differing opinions, styles and approaches are a fact of life and, if managed properly, are the things that can create real value. With that mindset, it becomes much easier to develop the conflict management skills to bring this diversity together in effective collaborations.
Recognising the inevitability of conflict
To encourage your team to work in this way, it helps to acknowledge that conflict is simply a fact of life. At some point – probably every day – your views, opinions and needs are going to conflict with someone else’s. The key is to accept that conflict in the workplace is not necessarily a bad thing.
Professor Jordaan says: “Try an exercise with your team. Work together to develop a one-line definition of conflict that’s positive. Then place it somewhere you will all read it often. Over time, this can help everyone develop a new neural pathway for understanding, and you begin to see conflict differently. Rather than fearing conflict, you engage with it as a potential resource.”
Successful managers also develop an environment of trust by being trustworthy themselves. Professor Jordaan says: “You can’t ensure that your team will trust everyone in your organisation. But you can make sure they trust you – that they feel you have integrity, have good intentions towards them, and that you’re competent in your job. “If they trust you, the chances are that people will feel at ease raising conflict issues with you.”
Giving your teams the tools to manage conflict
Something else you can share with your team is the acronym: W.A.I.T. – Why Am I Talking? If you’re only talking for the sake of it, then you’re not listening – and you may be stomping all over someone else’s need to be heard. Professor Jordaan says: “An interesting thing is that often what people need is simply to be heard. When people feel heard, they will often buy into decisions they don’t really like because they know their input mattered.”
This is where managers should lead by example by practising simple active listening skills: don’t interrupt the speaker (unless you need clarity), don’t get personal, and make sure you understand what’s being said by reflecting back your understanding − especially when a situation is, or can become, heated.
Using conflict to take you further
Conflict isn’t something that should automatically be feared or nipped in the bud. In many business situations, healthy conflict can be constructive and productive. Professor Jordaan says that, when teams feel safe and trust their environment, managers can introduce conflict to get to the heart of – or stress-test – ideas. He says: “You might ask one person, or one team of people, to be devil’s advocate – pushing your teams to explore different views, as well as possible upsides and downsides, of a project.
“It can be very productive to bring up controversial ideas – to get together and have an argument and allow people to make their noises. It’s like being the conductor of an orchestra – you let the instruments play, but you manage it in a way that remains respectful and achieves harmony in the end.”