Managing Team Conflict: What CEOs Need To Know

conflictMany people are uncomfortable with conflict. Some people are too comfortable with it. But everyone needs conflict in order to grow.

That’s true of teams, too.

For executives managing teams full of competing hopes, agendas, and egos, conflict is a fact of life. Anytime a group of people set out to accomplish something, there will be disagreements. There will be competing ideas. There will be discomfort.

But in the end, the best teams use conflict as a way to grow together. In fact, it’s essential that conflict happens, because without the expression of all opinions consensus can’t be reached.

A lack of any conflict compromises the ability of a team to achieve results, so conflict needs to happen – but it needs to happen in a way that’s healthy.

Here’s how to create an environment where that can happen, and then how to manage the outcome well.

1. Build Team Trust

The first step to creating an environment where healthy conflict can happen is to build trust. If a team isn’t built on trust, conflict will always feel like a personal attack.

There are two key ways to build trust in a team context:

  • Never punish people for bringing forth grim facts. It’s better to face reality than to act in willful ignorance. Honesty breeds a culture of trust. Creating a culture where honesty is punished tears trust down.
  • Encourage diverse points of view. Never ridicule an idea publicly; it only shields growth and creates barriers to sharing. Bad ideas can spark better ideas, and the best ideas happen more often through evolution than through a single flash of inspiration.

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2. Encourage Healthy Conflict

With trust built, conflict can happen healthily. Ideas are expressed without fear of ridicule, competing ideas are brought to light, and discussion (and conflict) ensues. This is necessary in order for team members to feel that their voices are being heard.

As a leader, you can encourage healthy conflict by:

  • Asking provoking questions. Don’t let half-finished thoughts lie. Dig into the deeper assumptions behind ideas you disagree with or don’t understand. Questions can uncover new ideas and unveil the thought processes behind controversial ideas to allow for fully-informed conflict.
  • Encouraging introverts. Often, the quieter parties are the ones who have the most well-thought take on an issue, because they’re taking time to process instead of reacting immediately. Don’t let their insights go to waste – invite their point of view at appropriate points in the conversation.
  • Speaking last. Too often, leaders input their voice into a conversation while conflict is ongoing and sway people to false consensus. As soon as you speak, people are likely to fall into lock step. Instead, take an approach of inquiry until all voices are heard.

3. Commit to the Resolution

When all voices have been heard and all differing opinions have been aired, your team is ready to move to action. At this point, the team should be close to reaching some agreement; even if differing opinions remain, team members will be willing to commit to a route if they feel they’ve been fairly heard and understood.

It’s your job as leader to clearly articulate agreements, so that you can generate a clear understanding of what the group is committed to. You can do that by:

  • Clearly defining roles. What is each team member responsible for? Commitments are useless if nobody acts on them. Delegate specific responsibilities to parties so that there are clear lines to hold people accountable to.
  • Writing things down. If consensus is reached in discussion but never documented anywhere, weeks later different people will have different memories of what was agreed upon. Write things down and share the documents with the team to keep everyone on the same page.

Once commitment is made, hold people accountable to the goals that have been decided upon and measure the results. If results don’t happen, go back to find where the process broke down:

  • Is trust compromised?
  • Did healthy conflict really happen?
  • Was there true commitment?
  • Did someone fail to stay accountable?

And then take the steps to fix it.

Learn to Manage Conflict Well

Conflict isn’t easy, but managing it well is the key to team growth and achievement. As an executive coach, I’ve seen it time and time again: the best teams trust each other, have healthy conflict, and then commit to resolutions that attain real results.

If you’re still intimidated by the prospect of managing conflict as a leader, don’t run from it. Work on it. Whether you’re uncomfortable with conflict or too quick to cause it, learning how to manage team conflict well will help your team to grow.

And it’ll help you to become a better leader, too.

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