Embracing Healthy Conflict for Better Team Outcomes
A flourishing workplace embraces task conflict and process conflict to move teams toward better decisions and outcomes. By differentiating between healthy conflict and relational conflict, a team can access the energy and benefits of passionate discussion, bringing many voices to the table to review alternate strategies and improve team results. Whereas personal conflict focuses on disagreements attached to individuals and can harm relationships, task conflict, and process conflict look for solutions that benefit the organizational mission.
- Conflict can be healthy for an organization when it focuses on inviting broad participation to seek strategic solutions.
- Teams and individuals can improve their conflict competency skills so they can practice task conflict or process conflict rather than relational conflict.
- When people encounter relational conflict, they can implement specific tools to move past the conflict and back to healthy working relationships.
- Scripture does inform our approach to conflict resolution and offers principles for working well together.
A Turning Point
A large men’s ministry experienced lots of conflict on their leadership team, so they asked to be trained on conflict competence. Giselle Jenkins, Consulting Director, Best Christian Workplaces Institute, led a training for them and helped them see the value of certain types of conflict and provided tools to help them be competent in conflict.
“The leadership team had an ‘aha’ moment when they realized that vibrant conversations and passionate disagreements were not about winning but actually helped them innovate and get to a better place on their strategic plan,” shares Jenkins.
What they initially thought were arguments was healthy debate over important ideas. They learned that their team could have better outcomes if they vetted more than one point of view. As they embraced healthy forms of conflict, they found that working together on their strategic plan was much more effective than in the past when they would get stuck in relational conflict. As they heard many ideas and worked through task conflict, they realized that the outcome of their planning process would be improved, they could access new ideas to innovate and see their disagreements as a benefit.
As the senior leadership team realized the value of healthy forms of conflict, they decided that others in their organization would also benefit from this perspective. They held training for all their regional staff teams to emphasize this as a workplace norm. By investing in flourishing teams, the whole organization benefitted from a new way of working together.
Types of Conflict
When people say they don’t like conflict in a workplace, they are referring to relational conflict. Personal disagreements are uncomfortable when you need to continue working with people on your team. It can ultimately lead to turnover or impaired teamwork. However, healthy conflict is not about personal disagreements but is focused on tasks and processes. It means letting go of the idea that there is one way to do a process, or only one great outcome for a decision, and seeking a multitude of ideas, which may conflict, in order to find the best solution for the organization.
Task conflict focuses on what should be done. It can refine a team’s focus, get people on board, and build a collaborative work environment. Teams will own their goals as they work through the what questions. Process conflict is about how things could be done. Process conflict can improve implementation and reveal potential problems early as each person adds to refining an idea. Everyone brings a unique perspective to the team which clears the path toward successful completion. The role of different types of conflict in a healthy organization is highlighted in the BCWI White Paper, Disagree With Purpose: Fostering Healthy Conflict.
Growing in Conflict Competence
Rather than avoiding conflict because of past negative experiences with relational conflict, how can you help your team grow in conflict competence, so they can experience healthy task conflict for better results?
First, what is conflict competence? According to the Center for Creative Leadership:
Conflict competence is the ability to develop and use cognitive, emotional, and behavioral skills that enhance productive outcomes of conflict while reducing the likelihood of escalation or harm. The results of conflict competence include improved quality of relationships, creative solutions, and lasting agreements for addressing challenges and opportunities in the future. As with all competencies, people can learn ways to improve, change, and develop.
(From Developing Your Conflict Competence: A Hands-on Guide for Leadership, Managers, Facilitators, and Teams by Craig Runde and Tim Flanagan)
Helping individuals and teams grow in their conflict competence is an intentional process that includes clarity in defining processes, agreements or ground rules for approaching tasks, and repeated opportunities to practice. Training in conflict competence is offered by Best Christian Workplaces Institute consultants. For a team that has past experience in unhealthy conflict, an outside trainer provides the opportunity for a fresh start to reframe the idea of conflict and move past unhealthy patterns to start establishing new norms and practices.
If you are unsure about whether or not your organization has healthy conflict resolution skills and good teamwork, the BCWI Employee Engagement Survey can provide a baseline for understanding the health of your organization and help you target areas for improvement.
In training for conflict competence, there are particular skills that individuals and teams can develop to help them make progress. Perspective and respectful curiosity are a few of the skills that BCWI consultants measure with a skills assessment tool as they are training in conflict competence.
Someone with perspective believes that there are no easy answers and that situations in the workplace are complex. In addition, they can argue positively for both sides of many issues and seek out new points of view. Often someone with perspective has wide exposure to different cultures and viewpoints. As individuals and teams grow in perspective, they are more able to explore different ideas for task conflict and process conflict, without resorting to relational conflict.
Another attribute of conflict competence is respectful curiosity. Someone with this skill will feel comfortable asking why a team member disagrees. They will assume that the other person must have a valid point and will try to understand another’s point of view. To exercise respectful curiosity is to listen well and not jump to conclusions about a particular idea.
Conflict competence is a skill that can be learned. It starts with leaders who embrace the importance of healthy conflict, and it can spread throughout an organization for flourishing and improved results.
Frame the Situation
How you as a leader frame a meeting or discussion can make a difference whether the conflict that ensues is helpful, focused on tasks, or if it gets personal.
Some ground rules:
- Do include people with a diversity of ideas in planning meetings.
- Do invite participation early in the process, so team members are actually shaping the idea, not just approving something that has already been shaped.
- Do approach the process with humility, knowing that one person does not have all the answers.
- Do frequently affirm that healthy disagreement is not about personal value but is focused on what and how projects are accomplished.
- Do listen to divergent ideas.
- Do ask questions to get to the why behind the what or how.
Healthy Responses to Relational Conflict
As you and your team are growing in conflict competence, you will sometimes stumble into relational conflict. How do you recover and regain momentum toward healthy conflict competence? A healthy response to conflict involves three steps: Pause, Reflect, Reach Out.
First, pause when you sense an escalation of conflict that is not focused on tasks but on relational issues. You and the other person need some space to let the emotions cool down. If you have a foundation of trust with the other person, you can articulate this pause and mention that it seems like the conflict is headed in a difficult direction and you want to pause to preserve a healthy relationship. Or the pause might need to be internal and not verbalized, depending on the situation.
Then you need to reflect on what really happened in the exchange that led to the conflict. Identify your own part in the situation and the heart of the conflict. Consider if the next step will be confronting, overlooking, or extending grace.
After you pause and reflect, then you can reach out to the other person to talk through the issue, with an emphasis on listening to understand. The goal in reaching out is to take responsibility for your own part in the conflict, make amends as needed, and work toward a mutual solution.
Christian Perspective on Healthy Conflict
As followers of Jesus, those of us who have received grace and forgiveness from God should be able to extend this grace toward others to reduce relational conflict. However, this doesn’t always work out as we may mistake smoothing over differences for authentic biblical peacemaking.
Several core truths about our Christian faith are foundational to healthy conflict processes. First, as Christians, our identity is rooted in God and not our own position or accomplishments. This can help us walk humbly into situations knowing that we don’t have to be right or win to have a healthy self-worth.
Also, as we mature in Christ, we are aware of our own brokenness and the brokenness of others with whom we interact. We know that God has extended grace to us, and also to others, and that grace and forgiveness can provide us a basis for our interactions.
A clear process for dealing with conflict in a Christian community is given in Matthew 18:15-17. While these verses are regularly quoted, people in conflict don’t always implement the practice of going to one person first to quickly deal with issues. “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over” (Matthew 18:15).
In our brokenness, we may want to talk to other people about a problem with a person, rather than going directly to the person. In the workplace, this may occur as the meeting after the meeting where someone who is in relational conflict talks to others about what just happened, perhaps rallying people to their side of an argument. They practice this side talk without going directly to the person with whom they are experiencing conflict. Jesus is clear that to deal with sin we go first to the one person. Then if an issue is not resolved, there are additional steps that involve other people.
As we keep reading past the teaching on conflict and sin, Peter asks Jesus how many times he must forgive someone (Matthew 18:21-22). Peter suggests forgiving someone seven times, which seems like a generous, forgiving spirit. Jesus upends the math by saying we should forgive 7 x 70. More times than we can keep a count of! That is true forgiveness, the kind we have received from God who does not keep an accounting of our sins. So, in Jesus’ accounting, the resolution of conflict doesn’t mean we keep track of the wrongs, but we forgive and move forward.
Another biblical principle about interpersonal relationships is in the Sermon on the Mount. In Matthew 5:23-24 we are told that if we are at the altar in worship, and remember a conflict, we are to go and try to resolve the conflict before we continue in worship by giving our offering right away.
So based on biblical principles, conflict resolution is direct (with the person we are having the conflict with), generous (forgiving over and over again), and immediate (to not let problems fester). Applying these biblical principles to a workplace will change a contentious atmosphere to one of grace and forgiveness.
Current Climate of Conflict
While organizations can improve their own ability to engage in healthy conflict, which leads to flourishing, it is important to acknowledge the overall climate of conflict present in our culture.
American culture is in a state of positional conflict. Many choices have been framed into dichotomies, as right or wrong, with people falling into groups of us and them. In this environment, even small decisions can escalate into relational conflict. Workplaces, churches, and other organizations are susceptible to conflict based on labeling points of view as right or wrong.
All the principles and competencies discussed in this article can help organizations create their own healthy climate, even as they navigate the complexities of contemporary culture. A first step toward a healthy attitude is to embrace a mindset that humanizes rather than labels those who may have different points of view. Rather than labeling those who disagree with us on issues, affirming their personhood and listening with humility can lead to greater understanding.
Developing an environment for healthy conflict is not a quick fix for an organization. People need to experience productive task conflict and process conflict through several cycles of decision-making to get past their aversion to conflict and to embrace the ways that healthy conflict can enhance results. Once teams throughout the organization have experienced the benefits of healthy conflict, they will become advocates for the process. Successful outcomes will energize teams and make relational conflict the exception rather than the norm in interactions.