Constructive conflict? Forget about it! Who knows how to make conflict constructive? In fact, in the Bates ExPI™, the item “Helps others appreciate the positive value of conflict” is the lowest rated item of all 90 items. In general, leaders are not perceived to be very good at facilitating conflict in a positive, constructive way.

But, when we looked at ExPI™ data from almost 2,000 leaders, we found that some leaders are measurably better at facilitating constructive feedback. More importantly, shepherding constructive conflict is a statistically significant factor that distinguishes those leaders who are perceived to be better at leading innovative teams, teams that excel at growing revenue, and teams that perform better. That is, some leaders are able to facilitate conflict in a way that results in significantly better business outcomes.

While there are many books and articles that show conflict is necessary for innovation and better decision making, we are able to identify specific behaviors that distinguish leaders who know how to leverage conflict to achieve extraordinary results.

What these leaders have in common is their ability to sense the optimal amount of tension that brings out the best ideas in team members. The graphic below summarizes these findings.

constructive conflict

The left side of the graph shows what happens when there is too little tension or conflict. The leader enables team members to avoid the difficult discussions and makes decisions without allowing for a complete airing and debating of everyone’s views and opinions. Psychologists often call this the “flight” response. People flee from any potential conflict either to preserve an artificial sense of harmony or to avoid dealing with differences. If the leader is uncomfortable with conflict, the team will never be able to have constructive debate. Differences will not go away; they will just not be dealt with.

As a result, the team will be wallowing in unresolved conflict. Often, team members will become passive aggressive and will fail to support whatever decision was made since they never really had a chance to express their opinions. Or, at a future meeting, people not satisfied with the decision will bring up the issue again….and again. This is a major reason why teams seem to have the same meetings, discussing the same issues, over and over again. The issue was never resolved. It was avoided, but the tension remains.

The other end of the graph indicates what can happen if there is too much tension. Here the leader does not recognize (or care) if the debate is getting destructive. In fact, on the ExPI™ survey, the item “Recognizes when conflict becomes destructive and/or chronic and intervenes swiftly” is ranked as the 80th lowest rated item of the 90 items in the leadership model. It is a common failing of leaders and is a major reason that team members hate conflict – it often becomes personal and hurtful. Typically, the most dominant people (often the leader) take over the meeting and try to impose their ideas on the team. Again, differences are not debated in a way that enables everyone to feel heard, leading to lots of unresolved conflict.

What Leaders Do Differently to Support Constructive Conflict

The leaders in our data base that excelled at fostering innovation, delivering revenue growth and leading high performing teams, are able to find that optimal amount of tension – the middle section of the graph labelled “Engaged.”   

While these leaders exhibit many behaviors that distinguish them, the two most critical behaviors are:

  1. They establish an environment of psychological safety for team members, and
  2. They excel at the facets of Resonance and Assertiveness.

Create a Safe Environment

First, these leaders create a safe environment. For example, we found they score statistically higher on behaviors such as:

  • Takes time to listen and leaves others feeling heard
  • Open to ideas and other points of view
  • Even when giving hard-hitting feedback, his/her positive intentions are clear
  • Often able to help others clarify their concerns or feelings
  • Recognizes that inclusion implies a tolerance for different ways of doing things
  • Encourages others to experiment, trust themselves, try new things

As well as making it safe to speak up, they make sure any conflict does not get personal or out of hand. For example, they rate significantly higher on items such as:

  • Recognizes when conflict becomes destructive and/or chronic and intervenes swiftly
  • Frequently a source of stability when others are flustered
  • Prompts a thoughtful attitude and objective perspective

Be Resonantly Assertive

Once people feel safe to speak up and challenge each other, these leaders are, at the same time both assertive as well as in touch with the feelings of the team. They know how much tension and conflict team members can tolerate.

They excel at items in the ExPI™ facet of Assertiveness such as:

  • Does not shy away from making his/her opinions, views, and reactions known
  • Speaks his/her mind and can be firm without seeming harsh or shutting down discussion
  • Challenges other points of view for a purpose and expects a reasonable response
  • Believes we can disagree without being disagreeable

The importance for tolerating tension has also been supported by our experience with the Bates LTPI™, our validated team assessment. We have consistently found that teams will avoid being candid, providing colleagues with feedback, or expressing a dissenting opinion in order to preserve a sense of team harmony. Instead of leveraging their trust to have constructive conflict, they avoid conflict to try to protect their current levels of trust. The irony is that trust actually increases when you successfully work through the tension.

While successful leaders are creating a healthy tension, at the same time they excel at “reading the room,” so they are able to dial up or dial down the amount of tension and conflict. They are outstanding at behaviors such as:

  • Adept at reading and responding to the nonverbal messages of others
  • Often able to help others clarify their concerns or feelings

They are also able to frame the conflict in terms of serving the greater good. That is, the debate is in the service of getting to the best solution. It’s not personal: it is about what is best for the team and organization. For example, these leaders rate significantly higher in the item:

  • Makes you feel part of something bigger, important, meaningful

These leaders make people feel that their struggles are in the service of something bigger than themselves. It is about the vision, the team’s purpose and not about trying to influence others to adopt your idea. It is about getting to the best idea. These leaders model this behavior. For example, these leaders scored significantly higher in Humility items such as:

  • Knows he/she doesn’t have all the answers
  • Values the truth more than being the one with all the answers

They facilitate a debate on ideas, not on egos or power. That is why people feel safe. That is why the conflict is constructive. The team is able to create a solution that no one person could have done by themselves.

Conflict can be constructive when leaders create a safe environment and are resonantly assertive in helping people have healthy debates on the issues. Focus on those traits and lead your team to innovate more, drive growth, and perform better together.

This blog post is based on an article entitled “The Goldilocks Approach to Team Conflict: How Leaders Can Maximize Innovation and Revenue Growth,” originally published in The Psychology Manager Journal, February 2019.

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