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 Great Leaders Inspire Others to Movement

Do you remember the last time you couldn’t get someone else excited or motivated to do something that needed to be done? Chances are, you felt deflated, defeated and even a failure as a leader. 

As someone who has come face to face with these feelings myself, it’s a tough place to be. Whether it be a new employee who is showing no progress a month into the job or a child at home who just wants to play video games, you wonder, “What else can I do?”

Take Samantha, a supervisor at a large logistics company, as an example. She has done almost everything right since she took over her position as a supervisor. She built strong relationships with existing team members, defined a mission and vision for the team, set clear standards, and helped solve existing problems.  

She recruited and hired the best people she could find to fill new positions. Because of the foundation she laid out, most thrived quickly. However, one of the new team members is struggling to become a fully contributing member of the team.

Due to the fastpaced environment, she directs his every move and sets micro-deadlines to get him to do anything. She knows she is in a bad spot because she agrees with LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner’s definition of leadership on a recent episode of Reid Hoffman’s podcast “Masters of Scale”

“Leadership is the ability to inspire others to achieve a shared objective.”

One of the hardest things for leaders is flipping their thinking from “getting someone to do something” to creating an environment where people are choosing to do something because they want to do it.  

Sure, you can demand it gets done from a position of authority, but that will only last for so long before your people get sick and tired of it. Chances are likely that high performers will exit quicker than average performers, leaving bad leaders with a team of average to below-average performers.  

Before we get into a few strategies and tactics to help you inspire instead of demand, it’s important we level set on what it means to inspire. The formal definition of the word inspire is; to fill someone with the urge to do or feel something. Its origin is from Latin, and it means “to breathe life into.” 

There are many strategies and tactics leaders can leverage to “breathe life into someone else,” here are a few of my favorites from leaders featured in Building the Best.

Care about them first

In order for you to inspire your team, they first have to understand how much you care about them. To do this, you must reject the notion that words hold great power. Instead, accept the power of actions. The first action has to be getting to know them on a professional and personal level.  

Start by asking them questions about their own journey, experiences, challenges, and what drives them. Instead of just going through the motions, be intent on listening and remembering so you can adjust your actions in the future to show them you listened. 

Like all great relationships, the only way to get there is by dedicating time. A mentor of mine always told me, “kids spell love, T-I-M-E.” The same is true in showing people you truly care about them. Your time is valuable, and you can’t get it back. Devoting time to someone else shows that you care, and they are more important than anything else you have going on. 

Connect them to a purpose bigger than themselves 

Everybody whether they admit it or not wants to be a part of something bigger than themselves. As humans, we are wired to want to be in a community and connect with others. Part of your responsibility as a leader is to provide this community and a common purpose or mission for the group.  

“If they don’t buy into the purpose, it’s not worth the energy to keep them.”

If you lead a team, do not go another minute without being clear on why your team does what it does and its purpose for existence. It’s easy for people to get lost in the monotony of their everyday work without even considering not only how their work impacts the organization but also how it impacts people beyond its walls.  

By connecting the people to a team mission statement you’ll magnify purpose and immediately raise the ceiling of what’s possible. Not only that but when things get difficult (and they will) this deeper purpose will give your team a reason to continue on, even though the most trying times. 

Here’s the hard truth about inspiring others. Not everyone will be inspired. Not everyone will buy into the shared objective and you can’t choose for them. Your responsibility is to inspire them to action and if they end up making the choice not to get on board, it’s up to you to find someone else that will.

Elevate the Way You LeadBuilding 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.

About the AuthorJohn Eades is the CEO of LearnLoft, a leadership development company that exists to turn managers into leaders and create healthier places to work. 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.