Every great story shares one common element: conflict.
And honestly, literature and movies would be pretty boring without it.
Conflict adds interest. Whether it’s the tried-and-true hero versus villain, or the main character fighting injustice, the most compelling stories involve conflict.
Just as conflict offers our favorite fictional characters a chance to evolve, it also provides work teams an opportunity to grow. When handled with a healthy approach, conflict can help inspire creativity, provide clarity, restore trust, and build self-awareness. The result is a stronger, more successful team.
Our individual perception of the world often serves as a compass, guiding our approach to decisions and determining how we navigate uncertainty. But our perception is not always a reliable guide and our way is not always the best way.
Different viewpoints about the right course of action can often lead to organizational conflict.
In the workplace, however, there are no superheroes, so we can skip the dramatic showdown where one person’s ideas triumph while others are left in a post-apocalyptic rubble.
Here’s a plot twist: rather than avoiding or suppressing conflict, try spinning it into positive conflict.
A healthy disagreement can be an opportunity for teams to brainstorm ideas, sharpen an understanding of others, poke holes in preconceived assumptions, and find creative, innovative solutions to problems.
Conflict isn’t always about a difference of ideas. A lack of clarity can also cause tensions to rise.
Picture the scene: two team members are unwittingly working on the same task while another critical project slips through the cracks. Why? Because everyone assumes someone else is handling it.
Confusion can make for good comedy in fiction, but it’s no laughing matter in the workplace. Some employees need clear guidelines and prefer processes. For these characters, a lack of direction or structure can lead to frustration and fuel conflict.
But don’t presume interpersonal conflict is always a problem – sometimes it should be viewed as a helpful signal that something needs to change in the work environment.
Clearly defining roles and responsibilities, establishing precise expectations, and implementing process improvements can elevate harmony within the team and help them achieve greater results.
A beloved plot line in romance novels and rom-coms is when a budding relationship is knocked off course by a simple misunderstanding. Then, to prolong the story’s conflict, the rift between the two would-be lovebirds grows wider as communication falters and trust breaks down.
Yet somehow the conflict is always happily resolved within two hundred pages or two hours depending on the medium. Successful conflict resolution isn’t nearly as fast or easy in the workplace.
How a team handles conflict can make or break trust. If conflicts are ignored or poorly managed, trust between coworkers can erode. But trust is foundational to a psychologically safe work culture and vital for high-performing teams to excel, so when trust is tested, taking steps to restore it is critical.
When teams engage in active listening and address issues with honest and open dialogue – recognizing and respecting different communication styles in the process – they can begin to rebuild trust.
And in doing so, they often discover that conflict can actually help build camaraderie and strengthen relational bonds within the group.
One common type of conflict in literature and film is man versus self. Shakespeare’s Hamlet or Good Will Hunting come to mind. Such stories remind us that we can sometimes be our own worst enemy.
We all have the potential to sabotage our personal growth when our strengths are so overused that they become behavioral blindspots. For example, your assertiveness and direct communication style may have helped propel your career, so you naturally continue to lean into those characteristics. But now those same behaviors are wearing on your coworkers who prefer greater sensitivity. Your overused superpower has become a liability.
How self-aware are you?
Conflict is an opportunity for introspection. When we’re willing to examine our own habits and behaviors, we often discover blindspots that could be undermining our team’s harmony.
Practicing empathy – that is stepping into someone else's shoes and seeing a situation from their perspective – can lead to better teamwork in the long run. We learn valuable lessons when we genuinely appreciate the viewpoints of others. Armed with fresh insights, we can begin to modify behaviors that may contribute to tensions and reduce the likelihood of future conflicts.
Embracing Healthy Conflict
Conflict is often seen as a thorn in the side of teamwork, but it doesn’t have to become infected. Healthy, everyday conflict can inspire creativity, provide clarity, nurture trust, and enhance self-awareness. It can be a story’s turning point – the pivotal moment where something fascinating happens.
So the next time a conflict arises within your team, remember the potential it holds when managed properly. And rather than avoiding it, embrace it as a stepping stone to growth and greater performance.
Birkman’s Signature Report can help uncover potential sources of conflict within teams and offer strategies to ensure healthy conflict resolution that moves teams forward.