Deal with conflict? No thanks – I’d rather jump out of an aeroplane…

I recently read that 35% of people would rather do a parachute jump for the first time rather than have a difficult conversation with a colleague at work.

Struck me as pretty extreme.

So what is it that we are scared of? Maybe it’s that that the other person will get angry or emotional and that having the conversation could actually make the situation worse; perhaps it’s that we won’t get the outcome we want and we will be made to look a fool… with all of these possibilities sometimes the conclusion we arrive at is that it’s easier to avoid having the conversation at all.

And perhaps that’s not a bad thing – because after all maybe it’s better to put up and shut up than to have a massive falling out with a colleague and introduce that potential discomfort into our lives – right?

But of course the reality is that the problem doesn’t go away does it? We might silently ruminate over it – we keep trying to put it out of our minds but it keeps coming back like a song that we can’t quite get out of our heads. As our frustration builds we may start to share our concerns with fellow team mates at the coffee machine, seeking allies in our annoyances; at home we bemoan the situation to our partner who listens for the hundredth time to the details of the situation…. but all of this is far better than the stress of having that conversation – isn’t it?

The truth is that we create far greater levels of anxiety for ourselves by avoiding having these conversations than biting the bullet and finding a way to have them openly and constructively. And as well as the cost to our health there is a wider cost to the team and to the organisation.

Unresolved conflict can over time become poisonous, with unspoken frustrations, issues or challenges festering and impacting both individual and team productivity; left unchecked the elephant in the room may have wider implications for the success of the organisation as a whole.

And there is another cost…because we actually need a bit of conflict. Conflict in relationships and on teams is normal, and when well managed is valuable – because without differences of opinion and some robust challenge, there is less opportunity for improvements to occur and the status quo prevails.

Things like differences of opinion that are often associated with conflict are actually the grit in the oyster – the grit that is needed for a relationship, team, idea or process to be tested, be stretched and to grow – for something better and stronger to emerge – for a pearl to be formed.

Students of Lencioni’s work on “the Five Dysfunctions of a Team” (and ergo what is required for effective teams) will know that next to trust, the ability to engage in constructive conflict is one of the foundations of a healthy, high performing team.

Thinking by organisations such as Resologics (specialists in workplace conflict resolution and team mediation) suggests that conflict exists on a continuum and that there is a sweet spot characterised by productive engagement and the robust exchange of ideas. Known as “the creative tension zone” this is the place we want to be to be having those challenging discussions so that they are constructive rather than destructive.

In the context of teams – the ability to work through differences in opinion and constructively engage with different perspectives are key behaviours in a healthy, successful teams – and when combined with trust, respect, ideas diversity, camaraderie, communication and optimism form the basis of a positive team culture. According to Team Coaching International (TCI) these behaviours really matter because when it comes to improving team performance and increasing productivity – it’s the positive team spirit and culture, including the ability to engage in constructive interaction, which can mean the difference between a mediocre and a high performing team.

Research shows that there is lots of room for improvement here. Data gathered by TCI over 10 years on 4000 teams illustrates that constructive interaction and the ability to engage in constructive conflict is the area that teams consistently score the lowest on in terms of Team Performance Indictors ™ demonstrating that this is an ongoing area of development area for many teams.

So how do we empower ourselves and our teams to have more robust and constructive interactions?

  • The starting point is to normalise conflict. Conflict in relationships, teams and organisations is normal – and when well managed can be really valuable
  • Take time to understand your own responses to conflict – do you avoid conflict, seek compromise, compete, accommodate or try to collaborate?* Explore your team’s responses and identify conflict responses which best serve you and your team
  • Remember that a lot of conflict is unintentional and is a result of unexplored assumptions and differences of opinion; be curious, ask questions and seek to understand others points of view and actively listen to what they have to say
  • When you need to have a challenging conversation take the time to plan for it. Begin by taking the time to set the scene to create as constructive a container for it as you can. If there has been a breakdown in communication, be willing to openly name your part in how you have arrived at this difficult impasse; state up front your wish to focus on the future and to arrive at a mutually agreeable outcome. Try and find areas of alignment – even the smallest area of agreement is something to build on
  • So that you can constructively channel differences of opinion and leverage the energy of creative tension in your team take some time to co-create some “rules of engagement”. Create a team charter which captures how team members want to behave together – including what behaviours and attitudes they can count on each other for – so that team members feel safe and supported in having robust, open debates. This charter can be used to help support a healthy, productive team environment and also be a resource that the team can refer back to when the going gets tough.

So why do this – what’s the prize?

The message here is “manage conflict early or it will manage you” – unresolved conflict is poisonous and destructive to both individuals and teams – we want productive engagement and constructive interactions so it’s important to deal with conflict as soon as it arises.

Individuals and teams who are effective at handling and channelling conflict build trust and resilience; they demonstrate innovation and creativity, make better decisions, accelerate their problem solving – and ultimately deliver better business results. Oh – and they enjoy going to work being part of the team.

Personally I think that sounds better than doing that parachute jump – how about you?

If you are facing challenges with your team that you’d like to discuss please feel free to call for a chat on 07803 165670 or drop me a line at

* Based on the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Instrument

#teamwork  #leadership #conflict #difficultconversations