As was reflecting on our conversation about conflict and how the fear of conflict is severely damaging our organizations, I was reminded that this isn’t just a work issue. We generally steer away from the difficult conversations in every aspect of our lives. Couples don’t talk about money. Parents struggle to talk to their kids about sex. We even have a tough time telling our friends that something they are doing might be damaging to them or others. Any conversation that might lead to conflict or discomfort, we generally avoid. But yet, each of these conversations is really important and avoiding them could lead to disaster.
So, what do we do?
I’m certainly no expert on this topic as I suffer from the same natural instincts as every other human being. But, I think that when we specifically talk about being a leader in an organization, there are certain things we can do to build our organizations capacity for constructive conflict.
1. Be the model. As a leader, the most important tool we have is our own actions and behaviors. We must demonstrate what it looks like to give tough feedback or to confront a situation, even when your push back is likely to be viewed unfavorably. This means finding the courage to have these conversations and pushing through the inevitable desire to avoid them when it comes. For our direct reports, just giving them good feedback on a regular basis is a great place to start (this means the good and, more importantly, the bad).
2. Become a student of conflict. Role modeling conflict is best if you are skilled at it. In order to become good at it, it’s important to study and practice. Pick up the books Crucial Confrontations and Fierce Conversations as a starting point. Also, study conflict resolution tactics. There are tools that help make conflict much more manageable. With these tools in hand, it’s much less intimidating to have the tough conversations.
3. Teach conflict skills. Once you’ve become proficient, it’s important to share the knowledge with others. Create book groups or trainings for your direct reports or peers. Write up cheat sheets. Anything you can do to get others familiar with the tools for constructive conflict. The more confident we are that we can handle conflict positively, the less likely we are to run from it.
4. Make conflict cool. Most organizations take their behavioral lead from the senior leaders, so if they are willing and able to engage in conflict situations, then others will as well. If they handle them well, that sets a great tone for everyone else. But, the converse is true as well. This means that we need to work on the executives within our organization to first get them to embrace conflict as a positive part of business. Then, to engage in becoming better at conflict. This is no easy task. Depending on where the conflict avoidance tendencies of an organization are today, the place to start might be by sharing articles and case studies from other organizations that support the case that constructive conflict is important. If you already have this kind of buy in, then find ways to both train senior leaders in constructive conflict techniques through corporate meetings, articles, etc.
5. Create conflict practice. The organizations who handle conflict the best have created ways to practice it. They create low-stakes situations where people are forced into conflict. This might mean meetings where people are divided into groups and asked to argue different sides of an important issue. It could mean asking direct reports to create a “role play” scenario where they act out a situation where tough feedback is being shared. Humans learn by doing, so the best way to effectively teach constructive conflict is by getting them into situations where they have to actually do it.
These are the kinds of things I’m working on to bring more constructive conflict to my organization. Are there other approaches you have found to be successful?