Just like the obsession with achieving the ever elusive ‘inbox zero’ can give one a false sense of productivity, so too can the absence of conflict in a team give many a leader a false sense of leadership success and employee engagement. It is not the absence of conflict that we should be aiming for as leaders, but rather developing our skills at dealing with it effectively in line with our goals.

We all have our own natural tendency in approaching conflict situations in our personal lives and work; some will tend to be naturally submissive, others naturally combative or competitive, some prefer to compromise while others tend to favour collaboration. There is no single attitude that works well for all situations. Understanding the attitude you typically default to is one of the first steps towards embracing conflict effectively in your team.

All of these diverse attitudes can actually be ‘correct’ depending on the situation. For example, leaders could choose to ‘give up’ their position in favour of an alternative position if the objective is to let team members learn through their own experience. Effective leaders regularly meet their team members halfway by finding a compromise that allows both sides to find an expedient or temporary solution to an impasse. Sometimes, leaders can use a conflict situation to explore alternative solutions and problem solve with their team members to come up with a win-win solution in a collaborative approach to conflict.

Leaders, on the other hand, are expected to stand firm when the issue is non-negotiable, such as for issues concerning health and safety. It is however the end goal, rather than our own natural predilection, that should really be guiding us towards the correct attitude to the conflict.

Emotionally intelligent leaders will choose their response to a conflict situation rather than react in a knee-jerk fashion. They do not allow their natural tendency towards conflict to take over, regardless of whether or not it is the most appropriate strategy to deal with the conflict at hand in an effective manner. To be able to do that, however, leaders need to get themselves and their teams to embrace rather than avoid conflict.

Here are three ways to help you and your team be more comfortable with conflict:

1. Provoke conflict

Yes, this is the only way you will start to rewire everyone’s perception of conflict. Needless to say, you need to do this once you have established a solid environment of trust and a few norms of how to have constructive conflict. Remember, even boxing has rules. So be brave and encourage team members to tear down that genius idea you hold so dear. If you fail, then just thank God you got it shot down by your team and not by the Board of Directors!

2. Reward conflict resolution not conflict avoidance:

When you are appraising your team on their performance and behaviour, do not penalise team members for being involved in a conflict. On the other hand, make sure you praise their efforts for resolving conflict effectively.

3. Portray a realistic view of a winning team:

It’s easy to get sucked into the attractive yet ultimately deceiving stereotypes of a winning team. We all know that conflict is a necessary part of the journey to success and likely to be the catalyst for change and meaningful communication. Reframe conflict as productive tension; a necessary feature of high-performing teams.

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