Most people avoid conflict whenever possible. There are a few people who love drama, but most of us do not. As a general rule, it feels safer and healthier to avoid conflict when possible. However, sometimes conflict avoidance can become unhealthy, not just for people but for organizations. Fear of conflict can be so problematic that business author Patrick Lencioni lists “fear of conflict” as one of the five dysfunctions of a team. The truth is that some conflict, like task conflict is actually good for your organization.
What Is Task Conflict
Task conflict is a difference in opinion on how a task should be done. Examples of task conflict include a debate over the right strategy for a project or a difference of opinion about how to allocate resources. Task conflict is different than relationship conflict. Relationship conflict involves interpersonal disagreement, in other words, when you’re mad at someone.
When Task Conflict Becomes Relationship Conflict
In a healthy organization, people feel free to discuss differences of opinion and ideas. Disagreements over understandings of a problem produce higher-quality decisions. The disagreement allows you to debate a difference and come up with a solution. In a healthy relationship, when you disagree with someone you assume that they have the best of intentions and that you can work it out. But when people avoid having difficult conversations, task conflict can become relationship conflict. The more we allow reasonable differences of opinion to build up without discussing them, the more likely we are to start to feel these differences personally. Relationship conflict can very easily lead to an absence of trust, another one of Lencioni’s five dysfunctions of a team.
You’ve probably seen this dynamic in your personal life. Imagine a married couple who disagree on the best way to load the dishwasher. If the couple each explains their rationale for loading the dishwasher, they can work together to come up with the best system. However, if each time one of them sees the other load it “wrong,” they huff and puff and leave the room, they’ll soon find themself annoyed at more situations. Suddenly, the conflict is no longer about how to load the dishwasher it’s about the division of labor in the household, or why one partner doesn’t listen to the other.
How to Have Healthy Conflict
New parents are often told that if they fight in front of their children, they should also makeup in front of them. The same is true for leaders. Modeling conflict resolution for your staff is one way to make sure conflict stays healthy. If you disagree with something a staff or board member says, tell them. Then thank them for the conversation. If you aren’t confident in your conflict resolution skills, you might consider working with a coach, either individually or as a team. Team assessments can be a great way to help your team understand each other better. Better understanding can lead to healthier debates and conflicts.
Leaning into, conflict won’t feel natural at first, but the more you learn to disagree without being disagreeable, the healthier and more productive your organization will be.