Boo! Did I Scare You?

Probably not nearly as much as the vitriolic spectacle we are watching in the U.S. presidential campaign. This seems like a good time for leaders to define and model what it means to have a healthy, passionate debate.

Conflict is a natural and necessary part of our work and personal lives. It helps us clarify our opinions and values. It gives us the chance to consider many points of view and to apply critical thinking.  The ability to disagree is important for both individual and team success.  Passionate debate is the stuff innovation and best solutions are made of. It can be loud and sometimes it can be uncomfortable, but it can never be allowed to demean, bully or demonize another person.

Top performance cannot exist without the difficult conversations we know we need to have. Too often we avoid them until they have damaged us and our results.  As with most of leadership, the leader gets to go first.  How are you modeling productive and respectful disagreement and debate? How much tolerance do you have for letting conflict happen? Letting people work things out for themselves? What unspoken rules have you set for how people bring you bad news, for how AND even if they can disagree with you?

It is a leader’s essential responsibility to encourage constructive conflict, set expectations for respectful conflict interactions and coach his/her people to develop effective conflict competence.  Here are some ways you can help your teams build the trust required to fight fair and improve the quality of their decisions, results and relationships.

“All’s fair in love & war was said by someone who didn’t know the difference”     -Ruth Rooney

Tips for leaders: Set the tone for constructive conflict with your staff:
  • It starts with trust. Are you trustworthy?
  • Explicitly tell them it’s okay and even encourage people to disagree with you and with each other. State your expectation that conflict be handled with respect for individuals and directly within the team.
  • Set ground rules about when and how people express disagreements.
    • Have a team meeting to gain input and buy in for a conflict process.
    • Ask specifically for agreement by all.  Silence is not agreement.
  • Go first.  Model listening when someone disagrees with you, thank them for having the courage to speak up and avoid any perception of retaliation.
    • Example: You often have lunch with your team. After a heated disagreement, you are  “too busy” for lunch and have discussions via email. You may unintentionally send a message that conflict is bad.
  • Step back and diagnose the level, the goal and the source of a conflict.
    • Is it a simple misunderstanding or a true disagreement?
    • How much emotion (anger, frustration, hurt) is involved?
    • Are there conflicting priorities or lack of resources? Is there a lack of clarity about who makes decisions or who is responsible for what?  Often, we jump to “personality” as a source which is usually inaccurate.
    • What is the ideal outcome?
  • Emotions are part of conflict resolution.  Share yours and allow others to vent their emotions without defending or dismissing.  A simple, “I did not realize you felt so strongly” or “sounds like you’re pretty frustrated” lets the person feel heard.
  • Identify the things that trigger strong emotional reactions. If emotions escalate, call a time out to cool down, come back and try again.
  • Listen, Listen and Listen some more. Let them go first and then directly state your opinion, view or concerns. Avoid blame! Avoid “why did you!”
  • Avoid sarcasm, name calling, “calm down”, “be reasonable”, “you always/never.”
  • Look for points of agreement.  We get caught up in the argument and forget our mutual goals, our respect for the person and our valued relationships.
    • “We both want the best for the customer”
    • “I can see how you might think that”
    • “If I were in your position, I might feel the same way”
  • Plan in advance what you must have and what would be nice to have.  Let the other person win on some nice to haves. Give them their dignity.
  • Have a backup plan if you cannot resolve.  Ideally, it is something neither of you want. Use as a last resort “I am hoping we don’t have to take this to the VP.”
  • Finally, say “thank you.”  Even if it is not resolved, it takes courage to engage. Show your appreciation.  Here’s to more and better conflict!
“You can’t solve problems until you understand the other side.” –Ron Garan

Look forward to supporting your future training and coaching needs  Contact me at or 978-930-4660.