Conflict is Healthy?

In most organizations, working as a team to solve problems or generate new products is common.  Conflict is a normal part of a team’s life but there are misconceptions about conflict that interfere with the way people deal with it.

  • Most people believe conflict is bad and should be avoided
  • Conflict always results in emotional eruptions, retribution, or loss of team status
  • All conflicts can be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction

Actually, some conflict is healthy.  Teams usually form to gain the benefit of multiple perspectives, meaning each member will approach an issue differently.  Healthy conflict allows the members to learn from each other in the process of discussing and resolving their differences.  Conflict helps the team explore new approaches and encourages new ideas.  Controversy can flesh out problems that have been ignored and foster healthy debate and new solutions.  In other words, instead of avoiding conflict, dealing with healthy conflict constructively encourages creativity, builds team cohesiveness, and strengthens organizational commitment.

How can you tell the difference between healthy and unhealthy conflict?

Healthy conflict is generally differences of opinion about the task at hand, diverse values and perspectives, and dissimilar expectations of the impact of decisions.  These can all lead to conflict about what the team should do, but from these conflicts better team decisions can result.

Conversely, personality differences, competition for power, hidden agendas of team members, and misaligned individual and group goals are all signs of unhealthy conflict within the team.

What can you, as the leader, do to encourage healthy conflict and minimize unhealthy conflict?

  • Create an atmosphere of psychological safety – facilitate meetings that encourage all members to participate, set ground rules allowing members to feel safe raising issues or voicing disagreement.
  • Assist the team in developing a contract that addresses how difficult situations will be handled – tasking the team with developing their own contract will empower them to develop solutions they can accept and that generally result in conflict resolution.
  • Develop norms for managing communication within the team – will members allow each person to speak without interruption or will free-range discussion where members can shout out comments or answers work best for your team? Either is appropriate depending upon the team’s goal(s).

The main point is to anticipate conflict, prepare for it so no one is caught off guard when it happens, and embrace (even encourage) healthy conflict.  Do this and watch your team build trust and commitment and become the cohesive team everyone wants to join.