Say the word conflict, and most business owners or managers probably imagine an unpleasant and hostile workplace. And while that can sometimes be the case, Lisa Gruenloh, president of Naples-based consulting firm Purpose Journey and a specialist in conflict management, says that not all conflict is bad, or bad for business.
“Conflict is inevitable, and it can either be productive or non-productive,” she says. “But people don’t recognize that conflict can be healthy and productive—and actually lead to innovation and stronger trust in organizations. We miss out on the opportunity to really leverage our differences, which is what conflict is.”
The key is understanding what causes conflict and helping to guide it away from unhealthy territory. Gruenloh shared some of her top tips for managing conflict and using it to your advantage.
Recognize what can cause conflict. Different backgrounds, work styles, personalities and values can be breeding grounds for conflict. Stress and anxiety can also cause tension, as can highly departmentalized offices where employees might have competing goals. “People who work independently of each other often don’t recognize the interdependence required in the workplace,” says Gruenloh.
Choose a managerial style that decreases the likelihood of negative discord. “Avoid the command and control model,” says Gruenloh. “Pockets of conflict tend to happen when we’re not allowing voices to be heard and really engaging employees in a productive way.”
Spot unhealthy conflict quickly. This is the kind of conflict you want to quash right away. “Healthy conflict is focused on ideas, not people,” says Gruenloh. “When conflict goes awry it’s usually personality driven. And it’s not so much the conflict but the behaviors associated with the conflict.”
Use conflict to your benefit. According to Gruenloh, your business actually needs it to succeed. “You wouldn’t want to build a team where there’s no conflict,” she says. “You wouldn’t have the variety of life experiences and ideas that really make an organization successful. And meetings are really boring when everybody agrees. You don’t get to that really cool place where everybody is throwing out ideas. And that’s where you get that really innovative new idea everyone gets excited about.”
Don’t hold everything inside. Avoiding conflict at all costs isn’t the answer. “There’s a festering that happens when people aren’t managing and resolving conflict in a healthy way,” says Gruenloh. “And eventually it explodes. Then it’s even harder to manage, because it becomes an even bigger issue. Make sure that your employees feel they have a voice and are expressing their needs so that those things aren’t under the surface.”
Give your managers and employees the tools they need to deal with dissent. “It’s important to actually have conflict training so that people really understand the difference between productive and unproductive conflict,” says Gruenloh. Modeling proper conflict responses shows the rest of the staff how to handle moments that aren’t so harmonious. “And when you hold a meeting where everybody at the table has voice and you’re managing all those ideas in a way that people feel valued, even if you make a decision contrary to someone’s opinion they still feel heard,” she says. “So you have less conflict.”
Involve the entire team in conflict resolution. Dealing with friction is everyone’s job. “I ask in the workshops I do who’s responsible for managing and resolving conflict in your organization, and I get answers like HR or my manager,” says Gruenloh. “But the truth is that everyone in an organization is responsible for managing and resolving conflict effectively. We all have to take ownership and accountability for our relationships.”
Know when conflict has gotten out of hand. “When good employees leave, you’ve got a big, big problem,” says Gruenloh. “Any time people are exhibiting behavior that demeans other people and are intolerant and creating a negative impact on other people and the environment, it’s so important to not let that go unchecked.”