Who enjoys the “tough talk” with a peer, team, or direct report?  Chances are, it’s a dreaded conversation.  Perhaps even one that is procrastinated, hoping the conflict will just go away.

Yet, often I find with leaders, that when they have the “tough talk,” it goes far better than expected, and it results in a better relationship with the person.  Let’s discuss some of proven strategies I have found in my research and work with leaders.

Leaders that manage conflict successfully do so by:

1) Demanding debate (in a healthy way)

2) Holding the team accountable through ground rules

3) Building a culture based on trust

Demanding debate (in a healthy way)

On a high performing team, people often look at conflict as healthy.  We’re human, it’s bound to surface.  The key difference is that high performing teams deal with it proactively.  They have the discussion it in the moment, or close to the time of the conflict and clear the air.  They do not fear it, they welcome it as a chance to be better.

It’s the leader’s job to facilitate proactive conflict resolution.  That does not always mean the leader has to facilitate the actual discussion if the conflict is between two people. Yet, it is the leader’s job to make sure there is a plan for a healthy discussion.

Great leaders ask their team, “how do you want to handle this – do you want to handle it yourself, or do you want me to help?”  It puts the ownership of the conflict in the team member’s hands to manage themselves.  That way if it happens again, they are far more likely to manage it themselves.  If the team member is not sure how to address it themself, the leader’s role is to help them create the plan for success.  This means, asking them to practice the talk or collaborate on a plan for the talk.

Asides from interpersonal conflict, leaders also need to ensure conflict surfaces in team meetings.  It’s important to demand debate as a team.  The team can sense a false sense of agreement when there is no debate or alternative viewpoints shared, resulting in the infamous “meeting after the meeting.”  That’s when behind closed doors post-meetings happen and hallway huddles happen.  This is due to the lack of healthy debate.  It means that the team does not feel comfortable discussing issues that were not discussed in the meeting.  Chances are conflict is brewing, and it is not being discussed as a team as it should.

Demanding debate requires a leader to ask – “what do you think?” when a team member is being quiet, or “who has another idea to offer?” to promote brainstorming, or “what are we not discussing that we should be?” to surface the barriers or challenges that may be holding the team back.  When these questions are asked, the team feels safe to share their real thoughts and is more likely to share their ideas, even if they challenge the norm.  Which brings us to our next principle, accountability.

Holding the team accountable through ground rules

Ground rules are also a healthy way to foster healthy conflict.  Having an open, engaging discussion with your team on how we will communicate with one another is essential.  I often do this at the beginning of a facilitated discussion, asking “what are the values and behaviors that we will hold each other accountable to as a team.”  That way, if someone behaves in a way inconsistent with our values and behaviors, we can easily call it out in the moment and address it one-on-one (often during a break), or as a group.  That is when you know a team trusts one another, when they can call it out themselves without a leader or facilitator interfering.

Some of my favorite conflict ground rules are from a leadership workshop I facilitated a few months ago.  This team agreed to these behaviors as a group, then were able to have an open discussion about their team culture, values, and goals for the upcoming year, pictured below.

Another norm I hear often is the 24-hour rule, where conflict must be addressed within 24 hours.  Not always the resolution, yet both parties need to speak to one another about the conflict in question and agree to discuss it at a future date.  This ensures that the conflict will not continue to fester.  There’s a timeline to successful resolution.

Demanding debate and holding a team accountable is the leader’s role.  A leader is also charged with maintaining the team’s culture.

Building a culture based on trust

When members on a team sense there is high trust, conflict is also easily managed.  Knowing that the leader and the team “has your back” and you can be open, honest, and vulnerable with them bodes for healthy conflict resolution.

So, what happens when trust is absent on a team?  The leader again has to show the team what good looks like, and that often means being vulnerable with the team.  This means admitting mistakes, asking for feedback, sharing stories of past failures or vulnerable moments, or through teambuilding exercises.

Leaders that know me well, know my leadership crush is Patrick Lencioni.  On his website, he has is an online assessment tool to evaluate your team’s trust, accountability, and conflict here, as well as a Personal Histories exercise facilitation guide to take steps towards increasing trust on your team.  I often use his short videos to open teambuilding workshops, and recommend you peruse them on YouTube too if you’re looking for good material to kick your team meeting off on a positive and entertaining note.

If you enjoyed this blog, please register for our complimentary online workshop Manage Conflict:  Demand Debate” April 6 @ 11am ET.  We’ll elaborate on this proven process, practice the tools and techniques, and share stories of women and leaders that have successfully managed conflict.

How will you demand debate with your team?

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