Seed World

How to Manage for Healthy Conflict

For one moment, consider how you feel about workplace disagreement — a passionate conversation, strong debate or animated discussions?

If even this mere reflection on workplace conflict makes you feel bit uncomfortable, it’s natural. Humans are social creatures and watching others appear to not get along, let alone personal involvement, ignites a natural fight or flight response. As a leader, you lose patience with discussion and debate during meetings because it slows things down. Culturally, we have come to interpret disagreement as a lack of unity and rarely as a path to achieve an agreed upon outcome.

However emotional, we logically know the value of disagreement at work. The best solution to a problem is rarely the first solution. We must compare, contrast, identify strengths and weaknesses of ideas in order to make the best decisions. Therefore, as leaders, you must recognize and help overcome the fear of conflict, debate and discussion; take the time to have it, and actually create a workplace where healthy disagreement is expected.

This goal starts with you — by believing that others have good intentions. Unfortunately, we all have at least one experience of bad intention that sticks with us forever, and that pain influences us still today. This mindset is something close to a concept called the fundamental attribution error. The fundamental attribution error suggests that we tend to judge ourselves by our good intentions, even in the face of bad behavior, and judge others by their behaviors, and assume bad intentions. Therefore, we must continuously recognize our tendency to assume bad intentions and purposefully work to look for, ask about and create the conditions for the good intentions to be overtly expressed.

When behaviors are interpreted as deliberately negative, we tend to stop listening, disregard the other person and build strong resentments. This internal attitude might look like interrupting or talking over others, rolling eyes, not responding, changing the subject or complaining after the meeting.

The most sustainable way to reduce fundamental attribution error is to get to know others on a personal level and help your team members get to know one another — to see that we have more in common than we might see on the surface. The more we see someone is like us, the more we tend to judge them like we judge ourselves — with good intentions. You might recognize this idea as trust. Building trust is the basis of healthy conflict.

To create conditions for useful debate, we must actually talk about debate. Now, not in the middle of a heated discussion, is a better time to talk about how we talk to each other. Now is a time to express that it is your desire to hear different perspectives and to ensure that the team is thinking through the issue fully to develop the best solutions.

During your next meeting, pay attention to your own feelings about disagreement; be clear on the expectation for how you and your team have agreed to debate; watch for negative behaviors that might come from assuming bad intentions, and remind everyone of the value of presenting alternative points of view.

Here are a few lines that you can use to encourage discussion in your next meeting.

  • “I think this is a really important issue we need to talk through openly…”
  • “Thank you for raising the issue, exploring the alternatives…”
  • “It took guts to put that on the table. I appreciate that…”

—Jonathan Shaver is a leadership coach with Envision Partners