The two main types of conflict, healthy and unhealthy, have several identifiable characteristics. An excellent definition taken from the Small Business Chronicle Houston states that “Healthy conflict builds team bonding by causing those involved to change their attitudes and grow personally. It also results in problem resolution due to increased involvement of all affected team members. This contrasts with unhealthy conflict where team morale is destroyed and team members become divided and polarised. Unhealthy conflict leaves the problem unresolved, and leaches resources and energy from the core project at hand.”
There are many ways to encourage healthy conflict and debate in your organisation. Human resources expert, Susan Heathfield* shares ten really practical ways to make this happen. They are summarised below:
10 ways to encourage healthy conflict in your organisation:
Make sure you set clear expectations to encourage healthy conflict. This should be part of your company culture.
Reward, recognise, and thank people who are willing to take a stand and support their position. It is often scary to express an opinion which is different from that of the group. Make sure everyones opinion is respected and valued, even if you don’t agree.
If you experience little dissension in your group, look at the way you communicate. If you want to avoid “group think,” but this isn’t happening, do you, non-verbally or verbally, send the message that it is really not okay to disagree? Do you make employees feel uncomfortable when they express an opinion, particularly one that is different to your own? It might be worth asking a trusted member of your core team for some feedback if you are unsure.
Expect people to support their opinions and recommendations with data and facts. Are staff members are encouraged to collect data that will illuminate the process or problem?
Create a group norm that conflict around ideas and direction is expected and that personal attacks and bullying are not tolerated. Group norms 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.
Provide employees with training in healthy conflict and problem solving skills.
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. Are secret meetings increasing?
Hire people who you believe will add value to your organisation with their willingness to problem solve and debate. Behavioural interview questions will help you assess the assertiveness of your potential employees.
Make bonuses dependent upon the success of the organisation as a whole as well as the accomplishment of individual goals. Pay senior members of the organisation part of their compensation based on the success of the company. This ensures that people are committed to the same goals and direction. They will look for the best approach, the best idea, and the best solution, not just the one that will benefit their own area of interest.
If you are using all of the first nine tips, and healthy work conflict is not occurring you need to sit down with the people who report to you directly and with their direct reporting staff and ask them why. Some positive, problem solving discussion might allow your group to identify and rectify any problem that stands in the way of open, healthy, positive, constructive work conflict and debate.
You can read her full article, including examples here