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Eight Tips to Encourage Meaningful Work Conflict

Susan M. Healthfield from offers these tips to healthy conflict in the workplace.

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Susan M. Healthfield from offers these tips to healthy conflict in the workplace.

1. Create a work environment in which healthy conflict is encouraged by setting clear expectations. Foster an organizational culture or environment in which differences of opinion are encouraged. If you are a manager or team leader, do this by asking others to express their opinion before you speak your own. Tell people that you want them to speak up when they disagree or have an opinion that is different from others in the group.

2. Reward, recognize, and thank people who are willing to take a stand and support their position. You can publicly thank people who are willing to disagree with the direction of a group. These employees speak up to disagree or propose a different approach even in the face of pressure from the group to agree. They lobby passionately for their cause or belief, yet, when all the debating is over, they support the decisions made by the team just as passionately.

3. If you experience little dissention in your group, examine your own actions. If you believe you want different opinions expressed and want to avoid "group think," and you experience little disagreement from staff, examine your own actions. Do you, non-verbally or verbally, send the message that it is really not okay to disagree? Do you put employees in a "hot seat" when they express an opinion? Do they get "in trouble" if they are wrong or a predicted solution fails to work?

4. Expect people to support their opinions and recommendations with data and facts. Divergent opinions are encouraged, but the opinions are arrived at through the study of data and facts. Staff members are encouraged to collect data that will illuminate the process or problem.

5. Create a group norm that conflict around ideas and direction is expected and that personal attacks are not tolerated. Any group that comes together regularly to lead an organization or department, solve a problem, or to improve or create a process would benefit from group norms. These are the relationship guidelines or rules group members agree to follow. They often include the expectation that all members will speak honestly, that all opinions are equal, and that each person will participate. These guidelines also set up the expectation that personal attacks are not tolerated whereas healthy debate about ideas and options is encouraged.

6. Provide employees with training in healthy conflict and problem solving skills. Sometimes people fail to stand up for their beliefs because they don't know how to do so comfortably. Your staff will benefit from education and training in interpersonal communication, problem solving, conflict resolution, and particularly, non-defensive communication.

7. Look for signs that a conflict about a solution or direction is getting out of hand. Exercise your best observation skills and notice whether tension is becoming unhealthy. Listen for criticism of fellow staff members, an increase in the number and severity of "digs" or putdowns, and negative comments about the solution or process. It's okay to have positive conflict but not to allow negative conflict to destroy your work environment.

8. Hire people who you believe will add value to your organization with their willingness to problem solve and debate. Behavioral interview questions will help you assess the assertiveness of your potential employees. You want to hire people who are willing to act boldly and who are unconcerned about whether they are well-liked. Look and listen for situations in which the potential employee has stood up for his beliefs, worked with a team to solve problems, or pushed an unpopular agenda at work. Yes, you want a harmonious workplace but not at the sacrifice of everyone's success.