How Leaders Handle Team Conflict to Make it Constructive

Blocks of two team leaders compete with each other. Competition, conflict resolution

It doesn’t take a Ph.D. to figure out some groups of people perform better than others. Not only do high-performing teams produce better results, but their team members have a sense of meaning, belonging, and achievement.  

There have been many great studies about what makes a team successful, but maybe none better than Google’s two-year study called Project Aristotle. Google’s research team found that the best teams were effective because they worked well together, regardless of who was on them. The five characteristics of enhanced groups include; Psychological Safety, Dependability, Structure and Clarity, Meaning, and Impact.

The most essential of the five was psychological safety. All psychological safety means is when team members feel safe to take risks and be vulnerable in front of each other. 

Bad leaders and teams are void of this crucial element because they look at being vulnerable, taking risks, and speaking up as negative instead of positive. It’s precisely why they never meet their potential and achieve their biggest goals. 

The best leaders and teams embrace constructive conflict. 

What’s interesting about psychological safety is that it’s impossible to achieve unless the leader and team members embrace the idea of constructive conflict.  

Three Types of Team Conflict

Conflict, by definition, is an escalation of a disagreement between two parties. It comes from the Latin word “Con” meaning together, and “Fligere” meaning to strike. While the definition is simple, what I have found coaching and working with leaders and teams for over a decade is there are three types of conflict:

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What Leaders and Teams Can Do to Have Constructive Conflict

Both high-performing teams and great leaders realize the only way to successfully have constructive conflict is for every team member to work toward a shared goal. The moment a team loses sight of the shared goal is the moment constructive conflict begins to fade away.  

The moment a team loses sight of the shared goal is the moment constructive conflict begins to fade away.

Take a small startup working in the eCommerce industry, as an example. The eight-person team was in a feverous debate (in Slack of all places) about their branding and modifying their company logo. In just a few slack messages, the discussion heated up, and each team member was passionately communicating the reasons for their particular position.  

As the conflict began to rise, it started to get a little personal, so I sent a short reminder message: Conflict on a team can be good! As long as we can remember, we want the same outcomes.

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Kudos to this high-performing team because they quickly pivoted from deconstructive conflict to constructive conflict by reminding each other of their shared goal and passion for the mission they were on together. 

Relish the Conflict, But Stay Kind and Curious

While some people’s personalities lend themselves to avoid conflict and others run towards it, a common desire is to be treated well in a disagreement. In Mareo McCracken’s new book, Really Care for Them, he wrote, “Nobody likes to be told to be quiet, or to be calm, to shut up.”

Not only is he right, but it’s also an essential part of constructive conflict. Being kind and recognizing that each person is a human with feelings is easy to forget in the heat of the moment. Great leaders recognize this and speak the truth, but they do it with empathy and humility.  

Great leaders speak the truth, but they do it with empathy and humility. 

As hard as it might be, putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and communicating the truth is what the best leaders do. They recognize they aren’t above someone else, and there will be times where they will be the one who needs truth spoken into their life, so leaving their ego out is required. They rely heavily on the trust they have earned with their team in the small daily acts, so people will let them say hard things.

How to Embrace Constructive Conflict as a Leader

If you lead a team, you might think this sounds good, but there is no way this type of constructive conflict will work on my team. Instead of assuming it won’t, try to embrace the following: 

  1. Establish a Shared Goal – Where is your team going, and what are they working every day to accomplish?
  2. Ensure Everyone is Committed – It’s one thing to have a goal; it’s another thing for each team member to be committed to achieving it. 
  3. Invite “TVD”– “TVD” stands for the truth, debate, and vulnerability. If team members can leverage facts, discussion, be vulnerable in front of each other, success is in your future.
  4. Debate Doesn’t Mean Decision – Debate doesn’t mean the decision. On a recent episode of Master of Scale with Reid Hoffman, he covered one of Ray Dalio Principles about conflict; “Make sure people don’t confuse the right to complain, give advice, and openly debate with the right to make decisions.”

Closing

When you invite constructive conflict into your team and relationships, they will get better. The only question that remains is will you be the kind of leader who does it?

In the comments, please tell me how you invite constructive conflict on your team or organization.

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About the Author John Eades is the CEO of LearnLoft, a leadership development company helping executives and managers to lead their best. He was named one of LinkedIn’s Top Voices in Management & Workplace. John is also the author of Building the Best: 8 Proven Leadership Principles to Elevate Others to Success. You can follow him on Instagram @johngeades.

How to Lead Like Michael Jordan

Michael Jordan is arguably the greatest basketball player of all time. Jordan’s life and career are on full display in ESPN’s 10-part series called The Last Dance. The series provides a window into Jordan’s leadership skills. 

If you aren’t familiar with Jordan’s story, he was selected as the 3rd pick in the 1984 NBA draft by the Chicago Bulls. During his first six years in the league, Jordan had incredible individual results. He led the league in scoring four times and was named the league MVP.  But something was missing. It was after a crushing defeat by the Detroit Pistons in the 1990 playoffs for the third straight year, Jordan had a leadership transformation that we all need to learn from:

“I decided to turn my energy towards my teammates and helping them excel.”  

After his mindset shift, the results started to happen. The Jordan-led Bulls won six championships over the next eight years to cement him as the best basketball player to ever live.  

Here is where it gets interesting. Jordan’s style of leadership when turning his attention to his teammates was rather questionable.  During the 7th episode of The Last Dance, Jordan summarized his leadership style by saying, “Winning has a price. Leadership has a price.”  He continued, “I pulled people along when they didn’t want to be pulled. I challenged people when they didn’t want to be challenged.”  

He often used demeaning language and challenged guys in a way that put them down. Because he was the best player in the world and he backed up his talk on the court, this alpha dog, demanding way of leading, worked well for him. 

After studying thousands of leaders, I am more convinced than ever that there isn’t one way to lead other people effectively, and Jordan’s leadership style proves this. However, all great leaders figure out that they can’t do it alone, and for them to be successful they have to get the best out of others.

Trying to lead precisely like Michael Jordan would be a bad idea for most people. There are only so many greatest of all time in their field. Having said that, there are some leadership lessons to learn from Jordan and The Last Dance.  

Conflict isn’t all bad, but how you do it matters

Many professionals view conflict as a negative. It couldn’t be further from the truth when channeled correctly. Steve Kerr, a former teammate of Jordan’s, replayed a story where the two of them got into a heated conflict in practice that started with Kerr punching Jordan in the chest. Jordan retaliating by hitting Kerr in the face. It wasn’t a good look, or it didn’t have any positives. But after the apologies were given later, the conflict brought the two teammates closer together and created a strong bond of mutual respect and trust that would help them in the future. 

How Jordan engaged in conflict with his teammates could be ridiculed, it was his willingness work though it that helped them be successful. All leaders must embrace and have the courage to engage in healthy conflict. In Building the Best, I wrote at length about the concept of “Direct Dialogues.”  

A meaningful direct dialogue requires the use of a three-part formula that has helped me and countless other leaders work through conflict with their people successfully:

Standards + Evidence + Courage = Direct Dialogue

Turn negatives into positives

In July of 1993, Jordan’s father Jeffrey, was murdered in North Carolina. The event caused him to question his career and all that went along with it. In a strange series of events, Jordan unexpectantly retired from basketball during his prime to play Major League Baseball. The experiment, which lasted a year and a half, taught him a lot of himself and basketball.

When speaking about the unexpected death of his father and best friend, Jordan spoke about one of his more famous quotes, “My dad always taught me to turn a negative situation into a positive situation, and that’s what I decided to do.”

While your negatives might be better or worse than someone else’s, no one is immune to negative things happening in their life or career. Look no further than the coronavirus. The key is to turn negatives into positives, and that starts with your mindset.

Lead from the front lines

There is nothing worse than a leader barking orders to do something they wouldn’t be willing to do themselves. Not only did Jordan believe this, but he was also adamant about leading from the front and not asking teammates to do something he wasn’t willing to do himself. During an emotional moment in The Last Dance, he said, “If you can ask my teammates they would tell you, ‘he never asked me to do something that he didn’t do himself.’”

After the Bulls lost to the Detroit Pistons in 1990, the team began working out the very next day in preparation to beat their hated rival the next season. Not only was this Jordan’s idea, but he was the first in the gym and the last to leave.  

Regardless of your leadership style, show your team you are willing to be on the front lines with them through your work ethic. People will work much harder for someone who doesn’t lead from the ivory tower but instead puts in the work with them.  

Closing

Regardless of how you feel about Michael Jordan as a player or a leader, there is a lot to learn from him. His commitment to excellence, his competitive drive, and his understanding that team success can’t be achieved alone is worthy of your attention.  

Steve Kerr, the current head coach of the Golden State Warriors, shared a phenomenal lesson he learned from Jordan on Inside the Headset with Eric Dungy, “Never be afraid of the moment.” Regardless of where you are in your leadership journey, “never be afraid of the moment” and step into being the leader, you are meant to be. 

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About the Author: John Eades is the CEO of LearnLoft, a leadership development company making virtual training easy and effective. He was named one of LinkedIn’s Top Voices in Management & Workplace. John is also the author of  Building the Best: 8 Proven Leadership Principles to Elevate Others to Success and 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.

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 Industry.com. 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.