We all know that conflict is an unavoidable part of life. Unless we live in the proverbial bubble or echo chamber, we’re going to run into ideas and people that we dislike or resist — often many times a day.
That’s generally a good thing. Conflict exposes us to new ways of thinking and can help us challenge our own assumptions.
But in other cases, conflicts become too emotionally charged. These conflicts can devolve into personal insults, ruin relationships, and cause plenty of collateral damage in the process.
This is as true in our professional lives as it is in our personal lives. At work, toxic conflicts quickly erode engagement and morale, and can even escalate into time-consuming and expensive lawsuits.
1. Understand The Benefits of Healthy Conflict
Diversity has plenty of business benefits, as we’ve discussed before (Related Post: Diversity and Inclusion: It’s Much More Than Compliance). For one, diversity is an indicator that your company is a welcoming place, which typically leads to higher morale and better retention.
But the biggest business benefit to diversity in the workplace may be how it boosts creativity and problem solving.
Diverse teams are more likely to reach their financial goals. We think that’s at least partly due to the fact that organizations that prioritize diversity are also pros at inviting healthy conflict.
Think about it: When you get a group of very different people working together on a project, there’s bound to be more conflicting ideas and viewpoints. After all, “diverse” doesn’t just mean people who have different skin colors, or even different cultural backgrounds. It can mean different approaches to problem solving, different ages or generations, or different education levels, for example.
When workplace teams have healthy disagreements and opposing viewpoints, they get to choose from among a variety of perspectives and ensure that all ideas are well-vetted before they’re adopted.
This tends to give these groups a serious competitive advantage when it comes to getting things done and especially in designing products and services that appeal to more people, even in new markets. This is why those workplaces that avoid conflict, brush it under the rug, or sacrifice addressing it in favor of the surface appearance of harmony will be at a disadvantage.
2. Learn How to Identify Problem Conflicts
So, how do you know the difference between an awesome, spirited group discussion that’s the result of a diverse, engaged workforce, and a conflict that’s doing more harm than good?
Sometimes it’s quite obvious, and you know it when you see it. Yelling, accusations, name-calling, explosive behavior — that’s all solidly in the “toxic” category. But in most cases, conflicts don’t start at that level. They almost always start as relatively small disagreements or offenses that, if unaddressed, become the more dramatic and damaging types over time.
That’s why it’s important to address even minor toxic conflicts right as they occur. If they’re ignored or left to fester, they’ll have done irreparable damage before they even make it to the HR department. And in a small percentage of cases, they can even turn into expensive, drawn-out legal battles.
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To decide whether any given conflict is headed into toxic territory, you can use this general rule: A conflict is healthy when it attacks an idea — such as a process, or a proposal. It becomes unhealthy when it attacks a person or a group or people. Other warning signs are exaggerations such as the use of “always” and “never” and emotionally-laden words.
Examples of “bad” conflict:
- “This is exactly what John suggested last time, and the client hated it.”
- “Jane, you always seem to want to take shortcuts when it comes to this kind of product.”
- “These Millennials just don’t seem to get the value of face-to-face conversations.”
Examples of “good” conflict:
- “I don’t think this design is close enough to what the client specified.”
- “In my opinion, we should spend more time nailing down these details before we send the proposal.”
- “I disagree; I think a face-to-face meeting gives a us a way to connect with the client on a personal level.”
Whether a conflict is indeed a problem will always be a little bit subjective. After all, in a diverse workforce, people can have very different ideas about what is offensive, very different levels of tolerance for those offenses, and many different ways of communicating.
That’s why the best approach to mitigating harmful conflict is to create a culture that holds all employees accountable for resolving conflict.
Encourage These Value-Linked Behaviors
At ELI, we believe that value-based behaviors are the foundation of any organizational culture.
Most organizations think they have their “values” figured out. But the real key to success is the “behavior” part. It’s easy to state what your values are. Getting your employees to act consistently with those values is another story.
To establish a values-based culture, leaders must be explicit about the types of behaviors they expect. Then, they must hold employees accountable for those behaviors.
Here are some of the organizational values that create a healthy atmosphere for resolving conflict, along with some of the behaviors for each:
Respect should be central to every organization, but the word “respect” means many things to many different people. That’s why you have to get very specific about what respectful behavior should look like at your organization.
Here’s an example: “At our organization, we respect one another. That means, among other things, that we complain about problems and not people, our criticism is always constructive, and we always listen actively while others are speaking.”
If you want the benefits that come along with lively discourse and debate, the value of directness (or “frankness” or “honesty”) has to have a central place in your organizational culture.
Example: “At our company, we are aren’t afraid to tell each other how we feel, even if it means we disagree. We air our problems directly and as they come up, because that helps us work better as a team. We understand that even negative feedback helps our organization improve.”
Employees will only speak up with the constructive criticism, dissent or unpopular opinions your organization needs to grow if they’re sure that their input will be welcomed.
Example: “At our organization, we’re serious about the values of respect and direct communication. Our managers know that their door is expected to always be open for their employees, and anything that isn’t resolved on their level will go up the clear chain of command designated in the employee handbook.
These are just examples. If you want help coming up with your own company values, contact ELI today to learn how we can help instill a culture of healthy, not toxic conflict in your workplace.