How to Leverage Healthy Conflict as a Leader to Improve Performance

How to Leverage Healthy Conflict as a Leader to Improve Performance

Power is a drug.

Once you get a taste of it, it’s hard to stop the ambition to get more of it. 

Give a bad leader the ability to make every decision, micromanage others, and enforce their will on those they lead he will throw ever being a great leader right out of the window.  

The tug of war match between people for power is also what creates conflict, but not necessarily the conflict that’s helpful. Instead of assuming all conflict is the same, it’s important to understand there are different types of conflict.

5 Most Common Types of Conflict in the Workplace

Through our research studying teams and leaders, we identified the 5 most common types of conflict in the workplace between bosses and their direct reports:

  1. Interdependent conflict – This conflict between leader and teams depends on the output, input, or cooperation between the parties. This conflict usually comes down to two key elements quality or speed.  A great example of this would be two people on an assembly line. If the first person is slow or doesn’t complete the task correctly it will create conflict with the rest of the team affected by it.
  2. Opinion Conflict –  This conflict emerges when the manager and team members have a different opinion on a particular project, decision, or internal procedure. This conflict usually happens while a decision is being made without a clear correct answer. A good example of this would be conflict on a marketing team about what to name a blog title before publishing it. While one answer could prove to be more successful than the other in the future (think A/B testing), more often than not, one decision is made and the other isn’t tested further. 
  3. Expectation Conflict –  This conflict is created because of the said or unsaid expectations that a person is held responsible to.  Most of the conflict between managers and direct reports comes from two key places; the lack of communication between them or disagreement around the expectations that have been communicated.  A good example of this is a sales person’s arbitrary quota getting set at the beginning of the year. (It gets raised 20% for no reason other than the calendar turns). It’s important to note that the expectation conflict could come from the opposite direction, an employee might have expectations of their bosses and because of a lack of communication, it causes conflict.
  4. Core Conflict –  This conflict tends to be political, religious, gender, ethnic, even environmental related.  These can be the most difficult because most people can’t find common ground in their core differences or don’t want to altogether. 
  5. Personality Conflict – This conflict often arises because people are wired differently.  These are things like a Myers-Briggs Type, Enneagram score, different strengths and weaknesses in Gallup’s Strength’s Finder, or even different Productivity Styles can all be sources of conflict.  

Most leaders go out of their way to ensure there is no conflict.  This isn’t the best strategy. Ignoring or not having any conflict on your team will cost you. I want you to think of conflict as a positive and invite it into your team by remembering this:

Healthy conflict creates courage and connection

Courage and Connection

Courage is being frightened of something and deciding to do it anyways. Teams need courage just like you do as a leader.  A team needs the courage to go into the unknown or achieve things together that they have never achieved before. But through healthy conflict with one another, it will build courage in people.  It will provide an internal belief that the team has prepared itself. Through that healthy conflict, deeper connections from person to person will emerge.  When deeper connection happens that’s when teams become successful.  

A great example of this is the book Building the Best that just came out.  Our team had never published a book before with a major publisher. We didn’t know if our writing was good enough, the ideas were good enough, or collectively we were good enough.  When the initial rejection emails came back from publishers it was disheartening, but no one gave up.  

Instead, we discussed the reasons the rejection emails were coming back and engaged in healthy conflict about modifying the things we could control. These were things such as the name of the book, names of leadership styles, competencies from the research and other publishers we should approach.  when I tell you not everyone had the same opinion on these subjects, that might be an understatement. But through the healthy conflict we engaged in, our courage grew. We felt more confident in the content, titles, and branding. A belief began to emerge that this book deserved to be published. Though this healthy conflict between us connections between team members grew deeper.

Of the 5 common types of conflict between bosses and direct reports in the workplace, Interdependent Conflict, Opinion Conflict, Expectation Conflict, Core Conflict, and Personality Conflict the one I want to share some ways to improve is opinion conflict because it exists in every team.

The #1 goal of opinion conflict is to get to the best possible decision for the team. 

If you lead a team, here are the factors I want you to consider when engaging in healthy opinion conflict:

  1. Size of the decision – How big or small is the decision that needs to be made? Does it have a big impact or little impact and how much risk involved in the decision?
  2. Invite conflict to the team – Invite opinion conflict by articulating by communicating the desire to get to the best possible answer on a solution to a problem. It important to note explosive conflict will not be tolerated.
  3. Consider the expert opinion – Consider what person on the team is the upmost expert but don’t assume they always have the right ideas because good ideas can come from anyone.
  4. Listen to every opinion – Truly listen to the opinion of everyone on the team who is offering them. Make sure you are open to the opinions of others and the decision isn’t already made.  Andy Stanley “If people don’t listen they will eventually be surrounded by people with nothing to say.”
  5. Know feelings will be involved– Anytime you are having conflict about opinions, feelings will get in involved. Use your emotional intelligence and be considerate of everyone’s feelings. Stick to facts as much as possible.
  6. Create systems or tools – Use systems or tools to help use the conflict to get to the best decision possible. Examples of this would be a mediator, charts, lists, and agreed-upon principles.

Elevate the Way You Lead: Building the Best: 8 Proven Leadership Principles to Elevate Others to Success is published by McGraw-Hill. It was named the #1 Best New Management Books to Read by Book Authority. Learn the stories, principles, and tools to help elevate the way you lead others.

About the Author: John Eades is the CEO of LearnLoft, a leadership development company that exists to turn managers into leaders and create healthier places to work. He is currently booking events and speaking engagements for 2020. John was named one of LinkedIn’s 2017 Top Voices in Management & Workplace and was awarded the 2017 Readership Award by Training John is also the host of the “Follow My Lead” Podcast, a show that transfers stories and best practices from today’s leaders to the leaders of tomorrow. You follow him on Instagram @johngeades.