Conflict, like adversity, is unavoidable in life, and both have the same reputation of being something people like to avoid. But it’s fire that forges steel, and it’s both conflict and adversity that toughen people and help them grow. Conflict can be negative and is good to avoid when it’s possible, but positive conflict exists too, and it can be game-changing for growth for all those involved. What makes conflict positive, though?
Examples of Good Conflict
Conflict is any time people oppose each other based on differing opinions or needs. What makes these encounters "positive" is that they are resolved in a way that benefits the company, the team or the project. These benefits can come by way of renewed camaraderie, better support, innovation and ideation, while negative conflicts can disrupt the workflow, damage trust, limit creativity and cause financial losses. Great leaders recognize when positive conflict is possible, and they steer their team towards it.
Scenario: Uneven Responsibilities
Imagine a project team meeting in which the leader allocates new tasks to each member, and someone noticeably rolls their eyes. A good team leader will catch this and call them on it, giving them a chance to voice the reasoning behind the eye-roll. The employee then says, “I feel like Natasha has it easy every time you assign us work, and it’s frustrating and unfair.”
Digging into this situation more can go a few ways; perhaps the team doesn’t realize all the steps behind Natasha’s job (say, tracking project progress), or maybe the complainant’s contributions are being minimized and their workload legitimately exceeds others. By bringing this issue up, it’s now possible to hash out these perceptions and clear the air. Doing so positively means respecting each other, speaking in a calm and orderly manner and not being defensive.
Positive outcomes can include the team discussing ways to expedite tasks, reordering the tasks or even simply understanding each other’s contributions better. It could spur creativity, birth solutions to other challenges and even forge new friendships.
Positive Conflict Resolution Strategies
When diving into conflict management, a good leader needs to understand what’s at stake if they succeed and what the potential pathways to success might look like. There are three compassion skills that experts recommend managers nurture in order to ensure conflicts veer toward the coveted positive outcome rather than the negative.
- Foster input. When interacting with team members and other employees, always seek their input on matters — and do so before volunteering your two cents. By doing this, you may create a more engaging, collaborative environment — key if positive resolutions are the goal.
- Practice empathy. Be open with others and try to gauge where they’re at. Don’t ask them how they feel about a situation, but rather “how are you managing…” regarding the transition, the project, working with John, the reporting method and so forth. Listen to their thoughts and then offer validation and understanding for how they feel by way of saying something like, “Yes, I can relate to the challenge of these kinds of transitions, but I think you’re on the right path.” Some considerate but constructive suggestions can be helpful but only after empathizing.
- Persist. Have a goal in mind for projects and exercises with the team, and don’t waiver from it. Be clear about any expectations but hold yourself to the same standards. Listen, support and encourage the team, but also practice accountability. Do not shy away from potential conflicts when differences arise, then you won’t give them time to fester and complicate.
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Steffani Cameron is a nomad, writer, photographer, from Vancouver, Canada, who is slow-travelling the world for five years. Her work has appeared in Washington Post, Vox Media, Kitchn, About, and more.