Team Dynamics

Why There Is Always Conflict in Your “Work Family”

By Beth Osborne for RallyBright

February 11, 2020

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If you’re old enough to be reading this, you’ve probably figured out that conflict in life is unavoidable. After all, we each have unique perspectives and beliefs, and sometimes they clash. Conflict isn’t necessarily bad, however, especially in the workplace with your “work family.” In fact, conflict can be the driving force behind innovation and growth. You need team conflict to spur creativity, and when conflict is productively surfaced and managed, it helps teams thrive.

The Work Family Dynamic

Work is not your family, but it often functions like one. There are hierarchies in both, as well as a connection holding members together. And there are often dysfunctions in both. In fact, when we look at the data from our Resilient Teams assessments, the most common response we get from team members when asked to describe their “team family” at work is “dysfunctional.” (We also get descriptions like “kind,” “tight-knit,” and “distant relatives with quirks,” but dysfunctional is the winner.)

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In either “family,” you most likely didn’t get to choose the members. You’re with each other and therefore have to work together. Just like your family at home, your work family will have to manage conflict.

No Conflict, No Problem?

If your team appears, on the surface, to have homogenous thoughts, you should probably be concerned. The absence of conflict doesn’t equate to harmony. Rather, it could be a sign that team members feel that their opinions don’t matter, or that voicing them is a waste of time. A table full of yes- men or women guarantees there will be no arguments, but there also won’t be success.

Conflict keeps ideas moving, while complacency means things stop evolving. Healthy conflict is an essential element of any workplace, and any work family.

The Importance of Conflict at Work

You spend a considerable amount of time with your coworkers (likely most of your time, in fact), which means you’ve bonded over shared experiences and are working toward common goals. Yet how impactful would this dynamic be if there was no conflict? What if everyone agreed on everything?

Sure, this sounds peaceful, but in reality, it means your workplace would never evolve or grow, which could eventually cause your company to lose touch with its customers and miss out on opportunities.

Conflict is fundamental to all areas of your business – strategic planning, marketing, operations and more. Having different perspectives and openly discussing them leads to smarter decision-making across the board. It helps stakeholders understand a problem or process from multiple sides. Productively managing conflict is a key part of leadership.

Is Your Company Maxed Out on Conflict Debt?

Human nature tells us to avoid conflict. Most people will keep the peace and proceed with the status quo, which creates something called “conflict debt.”

Conflict debt describes all the contentious issues among work families that need to be resolved to move forward. Sweeping conflict under the rug doesn’t make it go away. It builds and festers, fueling resentment. This cycle leads to employee disengagement, burnout syndrome and frustration.

You can proactively cancel conflict debt by constructively approaching subjects and conversations. One way you can do that is by identifying and learning about your team’s conflict style.

Team Conflict Styles

Inviting conflict to the table, instead of hiding it under the rug, isn’t always easy. The ability to resolve conflict productively and to learn from it has much to with conflict styles. Here at RallyBright we’ve identified five distinct team conflict styles:

  • Problem-solving: Emphasizes process and inclusion
  • Enforcing: Desires a quick resolution with minimal input
  • Peace-keeping: Prioritizes harmony and inclusion
  • Yielding: Prefers to concede or deflect
  • Avoiding: Denies that any disagreement exists

To build a team that can communicate healthily through conflict, you’ll need to determine what style is driving your team members. By defining this, you’ll be able to get to the root of why your work family is suffering from conflict debt. Then you can tap into specific resources to welcome and resolve team conflict with civility.

How to Make Conflict Productive

Conflict often leads to new and improved ideas and processes. In these instances, conflict is useful and doesn’t disrupt productivity. Promoting healthy conflict doesn’t mean you’re opening a roundtable for argument. Instead, think of it as creating a safe place to share conflicting viewpoints.

You can begin to leverage conflict when you foster a culture that respectfully welcomes – even embraces – different opinions. Good communication is imperative, and you can even design rules around conflict. Most importantly, conflict should never turn personal or passive-aggressive.

When conflict becomes a healthy part of your work family dynamics, it empowers your team by building stronger relationships that are based on trust and respect. When your team members trust and respect one another, they soon realize that conflict helps them see all sides of a problem, which leads to better solutions.

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