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How to manage conflict in the workplace

Encouraging healthy team conflict – and resolving the unhealthy kind

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Healthy vs. unhealthy conflictHow to encourage healthy conflict in your teamHow to manage unhealthy conflict between coworkersGetting better at boundaries

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Conflict in any context can feel uncomfortable, but trying to stamp it out from your workplace completely is the wrong objective. Well-managed conflict is a key driver of employee engagement (because it boosts psychological safety) and team performance (because it means big decisions are debated more openly, fairly and thoroughly). In fact, Spill’s favourite author Patrick M. Lencioni cites a lack of conflict as one of the five core dysfunctions of a team

But not all conflict is created equal. On the one hand there’s healthy conflict, which focuses on the decision at hand and moves the work discussion forward; on the other there’s unhealthy conflict, which gets personal and stalls progress. Successfully managing conflict in your workplace means encouraging the former while discouraging the latter, and resolving it fairly, if it happens. 

Part of how an individual handles conflict is informed by years of early experiences and our relationships with others. The good news is that conflict management can also be taught and reinforced by your company’s culture. By shaping company norms and expectations around how conflict is handled, you can sway the odds in favour of more healthy debate – and spend less energy on the unhealthy kind. 

Healthy vs. unhealthy conflict

A lack of respect is one of the core differences between productive conflict in the workplace, and conflict which is disruptive, distracting, or damaging to our health.

👍 Healthy conflict (task based)

  • Opens up discussion and deepens understanding
  • Stays focussed on the work, the decision or the task
  • Moves things forward

👎 Unhealthy conflict (relationship based)

  • Shuts down discussion and understanding
  • Gets personal
  • Doesn't make progress

How to encourage healthy conflict in your team

Conflicting views can boost creative problem solving and help your team to design products and processes with different audiences and perspectives in mind. It’s one of the reasons that diverse teams give companies a competitive edge, and that homogenous teams lead to embarrassing product oversights. (Remember when Apple released an all-in-one health tracking app that could monitor someone’s sodium intake but not their menstrual cycle?) 

🎤 Get senior leadership to model healthy conflict

There are a few key ways that team leaders can encourage healthy conflict and respectful debate in their team. The first is by modelling it themselves. 

By publicly asking for feedback and inviting discussion on their own work or decisions which affect others, managers can encourage a culture of speaking up and challenging ideas in an open and productive way. Critically, managers need to invite input while there’s still a chance to implement changes from the feedback they receive. Paying lip service to an open culture won’t be enough to feel the benefit. 

🗒 Equip people with ground rules and helpful language

Another good ground rule for healthy conflict is to keep meetings focused on ideas, not individuals. Think about ways to interrogate each idea together, from the same side (ideally from the perspective of your target audience), rather than having to defend your own contributions to the virtual pile of Post-its. This helps to keep things objective. 

Plenty of us have internalised the idea that saying you disagree with someone is the same as being rude or aggressive. Your company culture needs to challenge people to stop confusing professional disagreement with personal unkindness. You can do this by arming people with some vocabulary to question each other respectfully. For example:

❌ I disagree with you, because

✅ I disagree with that, because

❌ This doesn’t seem right to me

✅ Help me understand the decisions you’ve made

❌ I don’t think you’ve understood the task

✅ Let’s review our priorities again

🗣 Organise well-managed team retrospectives

Team retrospectives (or ‘retros’) are a great place to develop your company’s healthy-conflict muscle. They’re a safe space, usually at the end of a project or work period, where team members are encouraged to come together and have honest discussion about what worked well and what didn’t, with the express aim of making things work better next time. 

Here are some ideas to make sure your team gets the most out of their retro, while avoiding unhealthy conflict:

  • Choose an impartial moderator to lead the retro. This could be someone on a different team or an external coach or mentor
  • Start by removing the idea that anyone is there to cast personal blame. Some moderators like to open a retro by reading out what the author of the Project Retrospective Handbook calls the prime directive: “Regardless of what we discover, we understand and truly believe that everyone did the best job they could, given what they knew at the time, their skills and abilities, the resources available, and the situation at hand."
  • Remind people that a retro is a safe and productive space. The aim is to serve the team, and whatever is said in the retro stays in the retro.
  • Give people time to reflect beforehand. Some people don’t like to have difficult questions sprung on them in the moment: send out a few questions for reflection as pre-work before the session. 
  • Work together vs. problems, rather than against each other. Come together around a (physical or online) whiteboard to distil problems, find insights and brainstorm solutions: this makes the retro feel like it’s ‘team vs. team problems’ rather than ‘employee vs. employee’. Simple techniques like ‘stop, start, continue’ can be effective, where the team brainstorms things in each of those categories based on how they have been working recently. Some examples could include: stop having meetings longer than 30 minutes; start asking each other for feedback at the beginning of every one-to-one; continue addressing the elephant in the room when a project is starting to stall.

   

🏆 Put healthy conflict into your company’s role descriptions or values

As the classic business adage goes: what gets measured, gets managed. As you’ve seen above, there’s lots you can do to encourage employees to lean into more healthy conflict, but a more straightforward way to bring it about is to mandate it through your systems.

At Spill, employees are scored against our company values every six months, with the scores contributing towards promotions and pay rises. We score one our values, ‘Feedback is a gift’, on examples of healthy conflict. For more junior members of the team, this could include candid participation in retros and suggesting retro topics; for senior members, setting up and ensuring a high level of productive conflict in retros becomes their responsibility in order to score highly on this value.

We do the same in role descriptions. Some senior members of the team at Spill have 'hosting at least one uncomfortable but useful conversation with the team each week' written in their job description.

We think of this as the ‘opt out rather than opt in’ way of encouraging healthy conflict: like with pensions, making it a default seems to work better than trying to persuade people to start doing it.

How to manage unhealthy conflict between coworkers

More than a difference of opinion, unhealthy conflict can feel like a fundamental personality clash, which needs careful management to resolve before communication breaks down completely. If you’re dealing with a conflict at work that doesn’t feel productive, then there are a few steps you can follow to make sure your conversation leads to a respectful resolution. As a manager, you might choose to mediate conflict between colleagues if an objective presence in the room will be helpful. 

🌡 Wait ‘til the heat dies down

When you’re in the middle of an argument, a lot of your mental energy gets spent on emotions like anger, frustration or resentment. That means you’re more likely to lash out and question a coworker’s competency than focus on the problem at hand. The cortisol produced by your body’s fight or flight stress response can make it feel impossible to step back and think rationally about a situation – let alone see it from someone else’s perspective. 

In other words, you’re not ready to talk about it. Now’s a good time to acknowledge that a problem exists and needs to be addressed, but only once your immediate emotions have subsided and your rational problem-solving skills are back on the mental table. You could take this opportunity to write down your experience while it’s still fresh – this can be cathartic, but also useful to reflect on later once the dust’s settled. 

🛋 Find a neutral space to talk

It’s easy to misinterpret someone’s tone over the phone or in an email, so it’s best to organise a time and place to have an open conversation with your colleague and a manager, if you’d like them to be there. This should feel like a safe and neutral space (so ideally not your personal office) and should be free from distractions. 

It might be useful to draft up a quick agenda ahead of this meeting, to make sure that everyone gets a fair opportunity to speak up, and enough time to fully express their point of view. 

🔍 Clarify why the conflict came about

One of the biggest causes of conflict at work is misunderstanding the intentions behind a colleague’s actions. This meeting is a chance to get to a shared understanding of the disagreement, and crucially, to stop it happening again in the future. Essentially, you’re here to act in the best interests of the company by tackling the conflict together (rather than approaching it from opposite sides). 

When describing the conflict, encourage everyone to use “I” statements, not “you” statements. This helps to keep the conversation focused on events and behaviour, rather than personality traits. 


❌ “You didn’t give me enough warning when you moved the deadline, and it felt like you were sabotaging me.”

✅ “When the deadline moved, I felt like I was on the back foot because didn’t have enough time to respond.”

And once you’ve had your say, make sure you really listen to your colleague, too. Avoid interrupting them, keep your body language neutral, if you can, and make sure you pay attention to what they’re saying, rather than mentally preparing to react. 

It’s a good idea for everyone in the room to restate the main issue based on what you’ve heard. If you all agree, then you’re in a great place to move forward. If not, ask questions to clarify your understanding.

If you’re a manager, you might need some time to investigate the situation further at this point, or you can seek outside help if there are legal or safety issues involved that you feel unprepared to resolve yourself. 

✍️ Agree on a resolution

Once the core issue is clear, it’s easier to think about ideas to improve the situation now and going forward. Discuss all of the options available and try to prioritise them together. That means ruling out anything that you think is unworkable until you all agree on a plan for the future. It’s a good idea to capture this in writing, and to assign names next to each action point. 

🗓 Move forward

Schedule a follow-up meeting to check that progress has been made on the actions you agreed together. Now’s also a good time to see whether there are any lessons you could share with the wider company to stop similar misunderstandings from impacting your team’s wellbeing or productivity in the future. As well as causing stress and resentment, every unaddressed conflict wastes about 8 hours of company time through avoidance, gossip and related under-productivity. 

Getting better at boundaries

Often, we let our discomfort around conflict get in the way of bringing up the things that matter most to us at work, leaving us feeling compromised or undervalued when our boundaries are ignored. Though discussing our needs in response to a disagreement is important, unhealthy conflict can often be avoided altogether by communicating our expectations proactively to the people we work with. Learn how to set healthy boundaries at work (and how to share them so people will listen).

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