Co-Founder & CEO Think Solutions
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Leadership skills: the role of conflict in collaboration

19th Jun 2019
Co-Founder & CEO Think Solutions
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conflict image - two pairs of hands holding a rope at either end
iStock/artisteer

Conflict doesn’t have to be a bad thing – indeed, some of the best innovations come from situations where there’s a divergence of opinion. Here, leadership strategists Mandy Flint and Elisabet Vinberg Hearn explain how leaders can approach conflict constructively, and encourage their teams to do the same.

Conflict is often seen as something negative, usually as a result of people having experienced conflict and found it to be painful and demotivating, with an unhealthy impact on the work culture and climate.

Conflict doesn’t have to be negative at all. It comes back to how we perceive it. We can either see it as a good thing or a bad thing – or something in between.

In fact, conflict is only a difference of opinion, which is a major creative force, if seen and utilised that way.

When you are working on collaborating more, which we all have to do to survive and continue to be successful in this fast-changing world, it is not just keeping up, but staying ahead and that makes collaboration of critical importance.  

Helpful conflict plays a role in collaboration. Collaboration doesn’t just mean that we all get along ‘nicely’ and everything is smooth sailing. It means we need to have conflict to challenge our thinking, allow us to be creative and innovate.

Unhelpful conflict is when people start thinking in terms of ‘us and them’, getting entrenched in their own opinion, viewing others with suspicion, distrust and even dislike because they in some way are different (i.e. ‘not thinking the same as me’).

Helpful conflict is an inclusive, curious, open minded, thought provoking exchange between people that enables new ideas and insights to come to the surface and be turned into new innovative solutions to challenges and opportunities.

It happens when diverse people and ideas come together, wanting to hear each other out and wanting to improve on the status quo.

Some of the most successful teams and organisations are those that embrace differences, in whatever shape it comes – background, experience, personality, culture and more.

Here’s why conflict is needed in collaboration:

  • If everyone is thinking the same, no one is thinking.
  • To get away from echo chambers.
  • To avoid ‘group think’.
  • To challenge our thinking and the status quo.
  • To create new solutions to problems.
  • To think creatively and innovate.

Transforming conflict

As an HR professional, there’s a lot you can do to help create a culture of healthy, collaborative conflict.

Let’s look at how unhelpful conflict can be transformed into conflict that promotes collaboration and enables creativity and innovation.

1. Look at conflict as a good thing

Ultimately it comes down to mindset and perspective and it starts with your own. How do you view conflict? Do you think it’s negative, or an opportunity for something better?

Make sure your own perspective on conflict is constructive and hopeful, as it will impact everything you say about it.

What you think and feel about conflict will ‘leak’ and it’s crucial that you authentically frame conflict as something good, useful and unthreatening if you want others to develop that mindset too.

2. Create a culture of learning – be a role model for learning

To create collaboration, you need a culture of learning. To learn is not about needing to be right, you can’t enter with the feeling that if someone else’s opinion is right, that makes mine wrong.

We need to be open to learning from others and recognise that together we can achieve more that way than we would alone.

There are very few things in this world that are categorically ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. Most ‘right and wrong’ answers are simply opinions, as opposed to irrefutable facts.

Without trust, unhelpful conflict flourishes. Consider what you can do to make people trust each other.

As we continue to live and thrive in a fast-paced world, how could we possibly know everything?

As the world shifts and changes so fast, you cannot be a know-it-all, you cannot possibly keep up alone - you need to work with others to keep up.

The speed of change means we all need to continuously learn and grow. We need to create a culture of being a learn-it-all.  

3. Lead with purpose

Help people find their shared purpose. If they can see that they have something in common, something that is expected of them (i.e. a win/win outcome), then they will be more likely to look at each other with collaborative intention.

This means you need to be more intentional about that shared purpose. You need to make the implicit more explicit, and really spend time together to explicitly work out that shared purpose.

People may have a difference of opinion on what that shared purpose is, and that is ok, but make sure that it is discussed and agreed upon together.

4. Lead with trust

Without trust, unhelpful conflict flourishes. Consider what you can do to make people trust each other.

Do they need to get to know each other better? It’s hard to trust people you don’t know, after all.

Lead the way here by showing trust and even asking for help, as both these behaviours increase the levels of oxytocin (the brain chemical for psychological safety) in others.

When people feel safe, they are more likely to want to connect and collaborate.  

5. Value and recognise difference of opinion

When people are courageous enough to bring up a different perspective on a topic, thank them for it. (Yes, we’ve used the word ‘courageous’ intentionally, as people’s fear of conflict often stops them from expressing themselves, which ironically creates resentment and more conflict over time).

Point out that this new outlook brings something new to the discussion. It creates a necessity to think again, to explore other options.  

Conflict needs to be led, facilitated and managed carefully so that people’s emotions don’t run away with them.

Intentionally recognise and acknowledge people when they demonstrate a difference of opinion and challenge the thinking of the team. Make people feel that having a different opinion is ok.

When you recognise those behaviours, you will start to create a shift in the culture, to a more collaborative culture with conflict being part of how people are more creative.

6. Choose your words carefully and use questions intentionally

Getting people to want to open up to collaboration fuelled by healthy debate can be greatly impacted by the words we use.

It makes a difference when you use phrases such as: ‘thank you. That’s really interesting. I hadn’t thought about that. We haven’t found a way forward yet, but we will’.

Use questions to encourage people to think again and explore more answers. Here are some examples:

  • ‘Can you tell me more about that?’
  • ‘What are you hoping to achieve?’
  • ‘What if there is another way? What else could we do?’
  • ‘Would it be of interest to explore this some more together’?
  • ‘ What can we all agree on that needs doing?’  

7. Facilitate a dialogue between the ‘conflicting’ parties

Conflict needs to be led, facilitated and managed carefully so that people’s emotions don’t run away with them.

Volunteer to facilitate a dialogue (or coach leaders in doing this) between the people experiencing conflict.

Plan for it by thinking through in what order you want to talk about things, who to pose questions to and so on.

Remind the parties of their shared purpose and ask questions as those above to engage people in dialogue.

Draw out conclusions, praise participation and wrap up by confirming what has been agreed and what the next steps are.

Perceived conflict is driven by behaviours first and foremost; it tends to not necessarily be what someone says but how they say it that creates a negative reaction in someone else.

Keep focused on behaviours and start with your own.

Here are some examples of behaviours that can diffuse and turn around unhelpful conflict:

  • Being curious and open-minded.
  • Listening without prejudice.
  • Caring for and taking an interest in others.
  • Admitting to mistakes and learning from them.
  • Asking for help and valuing others input.
  • Being optimistic that agreement and solutions can be found.

What behaviours do you want to role model as an HR professional to create helpful, collaborative conflict?

Interested in this topic? Read Why we need a new approach to conflict resolution.

Replies (1)

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By donr1
21st Jun 2019 02:56

Greetings.....
No disagreement with the content here at all, mainly because it mirrors the content of an old but hugely successful training program from years back called Training Within Industry [TWI]…...Job Methods.

My one concern however is that it is addressed primarily to HR "professionals", where in my clear view it should be worded so that it is addressed as being a tool for HR folk to use with their Managers. See, the ones who have to do what is proposed above, are the Managers, within their Team. It is NOT for the HR person to come along and manage the Team in such a way a to use "conflict" as a positive. Always the Manager for 2 reasons: first, it is their Team so why hand over to some outsider who just leaves each day [particularly when the going gets rough], and second, it is a hugely valuable part of training the Manager. After all these years still extremely good advice.

Cheers. DonR.

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