Managers, Don’t Run From Conflict. Embrace It.

Working through conflict helps create a better product and stronger teams.

Written by Hannah Clark
Published on Apr. 04, 2024
Managers, Don’t Run From Conflict. Embrace It.
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We’ve been taught to run the hell away from or resolve conflict ASAP. But let’s challenge that thinking for a moment: What if we embraced conflict for its problem-solving potential?

6 Tips for Managing Conflict

  1. Establish firm boundaries.
  2. Acknowledge that conflict is bound to happen.
  3. Establish a culture of conflict and conflict resolution.
  4. Focus on shared objectives.
  5. Agree on and commit to a path forward.
  6. Get comfortable with being uncomfortable during conflicts.

Consider this: Isn’t it interesting that we view negative user feedback as an opportunity but internal conflict as a scourge?

Conflict inevitably arises on any team. Successful outcomes require the expertise of many diverse stakeholders, and it isn’t realistic to expect everyone to agree on every major decision. The very issues your team members are bumping heads over may be the very issues that arise in the future.

Say, for example, your engineers are homing in on a feature that the sales team feels customers will have no interest in — or vice versa. Without the conflict that might arise when talking about this, the engineers would spend time and energy on a feature nobody wants when they could have been focusing on a feature users do want. 

Conflict, under the right leadership, can help differing perspectives come together to create stronger teams and produce tremendous results. Here are six guidelines for making that magic happen.

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Set the Boundaries of Conflict

Know the boundaries of conflict. Determine in advance at what stage of a conflict you should call a time-out, chime in, or get input from other stakeholders. Share these boundaries with your team members. Let them know what the process is and what is not acceptable. If you need additional support, consider asking HR for help in developing those guidelines and invite HR to tense meetings to help mediate the situation. 


Acknowledge Conflict Will Happen

Communicate to your team that conflict is bound to occur. Acknowledging it in advance has a powerful calming effect. Some team members may have been conditioned to think that sharing feedback marks them as troublemakers

This most likely results from a past, unsupportive workplace and also from their upbringing. If they bottle up their feelings, they can develop resentment, a potent poison for morale, and your product might miss out on some crucial insight.


Establish a Culture of Conflict

Now that you have set boundaries and talked to your team about the inevitability of conflict, establish the culture you want the team to have around conflict and conflict resolution.

Encourage them to see conflict as an opportunity for exploration and team building. Conflict sets the stage for them to learn more about their colleagues’ work, perspectives, strengths and challenges. They can gain a whole new perspective and appreciation for their colleagues’ work. 

When chatting with your team about framing their viewpoint, motivate them to express their thoughts and ideas with the intention of understanding one another first. Here’s how you might open this discussion once everyone is in the room:

“Our team treats conflict as an opportunity to get better. But to benefit from conflict, we need to follow some ground rules. If you have a conflicting viewpoint, I encourage you to speak up and respectfully indicate that you have a different perspective. Most importantly, focus on the problem to be solved and not a teammate. Then, share why you think the proposed solution is off base and your proposed alternative.”


Focus on Shared Objectives

Once a conflict is underway and everyone has been heard, direct the focus toward the shared objectives. Calling back to your common purpose reminds the team why they are working together in the first place.

I recommend having your shared objectives visually available during group meetings. You don’t necessarily have to display them on a billboard (although that would be epic), but consider placing them in the footer of project documents.


Commit to a Path Forward

After spending time in a state of disagreement, you and your team will need to discuss and commit to a path forward. Even if the conflict process went well, prepare yourself for the likelihood that not everyone will be happy with the solution. 

Expect conflict to feel a little uncomfortable at first. Just like exercising a muscle, things are bound to be a little sore before they get stronger.

However, if someone vehemently opposes and refuses to commit to the chosen course, you may need to take a step back and spend more time finding a compromise. Personally, I prefer investing time in uncomfortable discussions to ensure collective commitment to the task, rather than merely achieving superficial agreement in the moment, which could undermine our efforts later on.

try this, too Conflict Resolution in the Workplace: 9 Tips

Get Comfortable With Discomfort

There is definitely a balance to strike between making sure everyone feels heard and valued and ensuring the process is productive. That’s why it’s so helpful to reiterate the disagreement boundaries, benefits of conflict and the project’s common goal throughout this whole process. 

Expect conflict to feel a little uncomfortable at first. Just like exercising a muscle, things are bound to be a little sore before they get stronger.

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