Remember when you were little and you heard your parents arguing? It was upsetting. You may have even asked them (like my kids recently did): “Are you and mom getting a divorce?” Hearing that as an adult hurts. It can make you feel like you’re setting a bad example.
You might respond like I did: “No, we are not getting a divorce. We’re just having a disagreement.”
But disagreements are uncomfortable things, no matter how old you are. And society tells us fighting in any relationship means it’s an unhealthy one, right? Actually, no.
Conflict is healthy
I recently read an article in Harvard Business Review that hit me like a freight train. It shouldn’t have been such a revelation, but it was. Liane Davey’s An Exercise to Help Your Team Feel More Comfortable with Conflict, discusses how our desire to build stronger engagement among teams had led us down a path of conflict avoidance. The irony is that the team performance actually suffers when we do this. When we avoid real issues because we are scared to debate them, we create a lack of prioritization and an overwhelmed workforce that struggles to achieve true productivity.
Her research actually shows that the most engaged workforces are those that have a safe environment and process to address conflict directly in what she calls role-based tension. She encourages leaders to “create an expectation that there will be (and should be) tensions on your team.”
Put it on the table
We all hold a role that requires us to do a certain job. It’s our responsibility to be the best employee we can be and act in the best interest of our company in the role we are given. Not every role has the same objective. We gain nothing by hiding from that, but we have *everything* to gain by putting it on the table and addressing the challenges.
I love my team. But I also do not shy away from debate. I try to work through conflict. Now sometimes I may work through it too aggressively and so I’ll apologize for the way I handled it – but I don’t apologize for handling it. That is the most important role of a leader – at some point, a decision has to be made and you are being paid to do just that. It doesn’t mean you can’t create a safe and productive environment for your team to address conflict head-on and work through it.
Embrace the tension
So Davey’s article is good news for my team and my marriage! In both cases, we may argue, but it’s healthy. We argue because we do not see something the same way. Bringing the issue out in the open and working through it is what helps us thrive in the long run. When we avoid the tension of disagreement, it leads to resentment and could put a real wrench in your relationships.
Too often, we avoid conflict – and that does our teams and our company a real disservice. Ultimately, we are limiting the organization’s ability to grow and sustain itself. Davey’s article outlines a great exercise to help anyone work through conflict productively by asking a series of questions – I encourage you to check it out.