Three Ways to Foster Healthy Conflict Within Teams
Conflict is an inherent part of teamwork. Whether it's a disagreement over direction, a clash of personalities, or differences in how team members respond to a crisis, conflicts are bound to occur.
Teams are made up of people who contribute unique and valuable skills and experience — but they also bring to work their individual perceptions, needs, stress triggers, and communication styles. So, it is only natural for coworkers to have occasional differences of opinion or misunderstandings.
Not all conflict, however, is detrimental.
Healthy conflict — involving open communication, constructive feedback, and a willingness to explore various viewpoints — can lead to innovation, improved decision-making, and stronger team connection.
On the other hand, unhealthy conflict — often manifested as personal attacks, blame, and grudges — can fracture teams, hinder productivity, and damage morale.
To maintain a positive team dynamic, it’s important for leaders to reduce unhealthy conflict. This starts by taking steps to promote a team’s purpose, provide clarity around responsibilities, and create a psychologically safe work environment.
A clear and compelling purpose can be a team’s compass, guiding its steps — and it can be a rallying cry that motivates its members to work towards a shared goal. It defines why the team exists and what unique contributions it brings to the organization. Without a defined purpose, team members can become misaligned, disagreeing about their priorities, stakeholders, and desired impact.
A well-defined purpose statement serves as a filter for decision-making, helping team members understand how to prioritize tasks and align their actions with the organization's mission. Such clarity naturally minimizes conflicts related to which initiatives to take on and which to table.
Team leaders should consistently communicate and revisit a team’s purpose statement to reinforce its significance. Post it around the team’s workspace. Create it as a screensaver. Reminding teams what they alone can do to bring the organization’s vision to life helps to align members to a common goal and connect them to each other.
Confusion and ambiguity around responsibilities, project deadlines, and performance metrics can all fuel team conflicts.
Clearly defined roles and expectations are essential for reducing destructive conflict.
The issue is compounded in today’s VUCA culture — work environments that are volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous — where change is a constant.
While exciting for some, continuous change can lead to confusion when poorly managed. That means leaders have to be able to respond to rapid-fire workplace shifts while providing clarity for their employees in the process.
When roles are well defined, job responsibilities are spelled out, and expectations are clearly established, teams perform better and reduce the potential for conflict.
For leaders, providing clarity is not a one-and-done exercise. As priorities, team players, and strategies evolve — as they tend to do — open and ongoing communication becomes key to ensure understanding and stave off unproductive conflict.
Create Psychological Safety
Workplace conflict is not inherently good or bad. How it is managed, though, determines whether it is healthy or unhealthy conflict and in turn, its impact on the team.
When well-managed, healthy workplace conflict can lead to better decisions and greater understanding.
Unhealthy conflict arises and often escalates when team members are afraid to express their thoughts, voice concerns, or admit mistakes.
A culture of constant fear will eventually trigger a defensive fight or flight response, and team members can get stuck in a mode of self-protection that contributes to stress and hinders constructive conflict resolution.
Leaders can eliminate fear as a source of conflict by fostering a psychologically safe environment where employees feel encouraged to speak openly, share lessons learned, acknowledge failings, and show vulnerability.
Since psychological safety may look different for each team member, leaders must be attuned to individual needs and preferences to most effectively minimize fear-based conflict.
Minimizing Unhealthy Conflict
Conflict is an inevitable part of teamwork, but it doesn't have to be unhealthy or counterproductive.
Effective leaders can minimize unhealthy conflict within their teams and cultivate a positive environment by promoting purpose, providing clarity, and creating a psychologically safe workplace.
Birkman's High-Performing Teams Program offers leaders the tools to implement these pillars and provides teams a structure of accountability to ensure each becomes a part of employees’ daily working flow.