As you think about the teams you are part of, do you recognize the conflict avoiders—those who find a way to leave meetings when the conversation gets a little heated? How about those who are overly accommodating when they get pushback on an idea they want to promote and give way to a stronger voice? Who are the team members who always push their ideas through by sheer force, despite the objections of others?

Conflict on teams is reported to be a top concern for those who lead organizations, yet there is another way to see something that, let’s face it, we will never get rid of, and maybe that is a good thing. What if we could use this natural human reaction to differing points of view to make our teams stronger, better, faster to solution-producing ideas?

I have a client we will call Mike, who took on a director role in a tech company and reported to a CTO who used the command-and-control method of management. As products moved through the design and testing phase, this CTO leaned heavily on my client to micromanage daily progress by the design engineers. It was a violation of Mike’s values and natural strengths. He is very much on the relationship-building side of the strengths equation. The CTO had almost no relationship-building strengths but was very task-oriented in his way of seeing the world. They clashed repeatedly. Mike was willing to go to the mat to preserve the good working relationships his team members had with him, and he had confidence they would deliver on time, within budget.

What are you willing to go to the mat for?

What are those elements in your work life that are important enough to endure the discomfort of conflict for? These might be your core life values, your integrity, your family, your mission or purpose. If we approach team members who are locked in verbal battle with this kind of curiosity, we all learn what is truly meaningful to them, and why. We can ask questions like, 

“What does this decision represent to you?”

“How do these elements diminish your experience?”

“What is important about this to you?”

“What is it that you need that you feel like you are not getting?”

When we get curious about the needs not being met, or perception of future needs not being met, we can see what the top values of our collaborators are. When we understand each other’s needs and values, we can work out solutions that are a win for everyone. 

Most of us stop short of holding on to that curiosity when our buttons get pushed. We make assumptions like, “He is clueless and doesn’t understand the issues,” or “They are trying to manipulate us,” or “They don’t appreciate what I’m trying to do here.” We don’t make these assumptions because we are trying to be difficult, we make them because we assume others must see the world the way we do, and what we see is so obvious to us it MUST be obvious to them. 

This is why understanding our strengths can be so valuable to team dynamics. That understanding helps us see first that those on the strategic and executing side of strengths (using Clifton Strengthsfinder from Gallup) think in terms of getting things done, how tasks are moved along. They let us know that there is another way of seeing that is so natural to relationship builders and influencers and that is how any decision will affect relationships. 

Just understanding this helps us navigate conversations with a language that can unify all players. Some of the positive things about encountering conflict on our teams:

  • We know our people are passionate rather than indifferent
  • We learn what their core values are
  • Conflict handled well can bring clarity and new ideas for solutions
  • Conflict can help us sort through ideas and eliminate those that are not a win for all stakeholders
  • Differing opinions can help us prioritize the workload and objectives of our team

Since we know that conflict is going to be a part of any group of humans attempting to collaborate, let’s bring our innate brilliance to having it be a constructive element that helps us all be more clear, more flexible and willing to hold curiosity a bit longer without allowing judgment to take over. To hear a conversation between five executive coaches discuss this, listen to a recent edition of ManagerMondays here.

Teri Johnson is the founding partner for Personal Best Partners, a company that helps business and civic leaders build teams that perform at their fullest potential.

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