When you have human beings working together, even on the same team and toward a common goal, conflict is bound to arise. We all have opinions and experiences that shape our thinking, and many times they don’t align with the opinions and experiences of others. When you have three generations (at least) working together—each with very different communication styles and approaches to work—conflict is inevitable.
Though it may feel uncomfortable in the moment, conflict itself isn’t a negative thing. In Bruce Tuckman’s model of team development, a team hits their stride (performing) after a period of conflict (storming). As a manager, it’s your job to navigate your team through the storm. Here are some dos and don’ts to keep in mind:
- Fear it. Conflict is not comfortable. It takes courage to face it and thoughtfulness to get through it. But when properly managed, conflict can open new ways of thinking and problem-solving. It can strengthen relationships if people in conflict can come to an agreement. Perhaps most importantly, conflict challenges the status quo and can help a team move forward in new ways.
- Ignore it. News flash: ignoring conflict doesn’t make it go away. It can make it worse. In addition to lower morale and decreased productivity, unresolved conflict can lead to a divided team or organization that can’t move past the tension and acrimony to collaborate on other important matters. Also, if conflict on a team that you lead is going unresolved or ignored, that can reflect poorly on you. People are counting on you to be part of the solution.
- Take it too personally. As a leader, you set the tone for your team. If you are ignoring conflict or going out of your way to avoid it, you bear some responsibility for the problem. However, if you are addressing the situation in a professional way and taking necessary steps toward resolution, try not to internalize. Remember, this is what happens when humans interact with other humans.
- Establish norms. My team has been together in its current iteration for almost four years. We were due for a storming cycle and we got one last spring. However, we used it as an opportunity to set our team norms and values. One value we selected as a team is “speaking straight”—that is, we agree to communicate with each other respectfully but directly, honestly, and in the moment. Defining the rules of engagement gets everyone on the same page and lets them know that it is safe to challenge one another in a respectful and professional manner.
- Encourage productive debate. In the “forming” phase, team members are generally on their best behavior as they get to know one another’s work styles and are focused on the tasks at hand. As people become more comfortable with each other, they begin to share their ideas and opinions more freely. It’s up to you to ensure this is done in a way that is productive and professional (see above) and that people challenge each other in ways that promote innovative and creative thinking.
- Foster trust. Healthy and constructive conflict requires trust, and as a manager, you are responsible for creating an environment that allows trust to grow and ideas to flourish. Lead by example. Practice courteous sincerity and vulnerability. Allow your team members insight into your decision-making. Trust is the foundation of a functional and effective team.
Even on effective and established teams, conflict will arise and at times be uncomfortable. But if you’ve been on teams that survived “storming” and moved all the way into “performing”, you know there is reward on the other side of conflict.