Building A Culture Of Healthy Conflict At Work

When I work with a leadership team as their EOS® Implementer, they learn very quickly that I encourage a culture of healthy conflict at work. By lunch the first day, we’ve already built their EOS Accountability Chart™, which takes an immense amount of respectful debate, trust, and willingness to be open. These are all hallmark signs of healthy conflict. 

My clients get the benefit of my sitting in on their major meetings and acting as a mediator for a lot of the conflict that has built up. (Remember, conflict isn’t a bad thing. Ignoring it is.) I’d like to think that my years teaching the Entrepreneurial Operating System® and my training as a certified Conflict Resolution Specialist makes that time very valuable for the leadership team. And, that they become much better at managing their own conflict as a result. But, they’re  just one piece of the puzzle.

A business isn’t just the leadership team. A business can be hundreds or even thousands of people spread across the entire globe. In my client sessions, I often talk about building a company culture and making it part of the daily comings and goings of your business. But, building a culture of healthy conflict at work occupies a unique space. To help my clients and readers, I’ve put together a short list of steps.

These steps will help you get your culture of healthy conflict out of the leadership team and into the entire organization.

Step 1: Take A Measure Of The Current Culture

My son is a scientist. He’s doing his PhD at Penn State right now. One of the things he’s always telling me about science is that experimentation starts with understanding the current state before thinking about how to change it. I’d advise the same in this situation.

No matter how many excellent changes you are thinking about making in your culture of conflict at work, you can’t do that without first getting a crystal clear picture of the current situation. Without that picture your changes may have totally unexpected results, or be down right impossible to implement.

After your leadership team is comfortable with their understanding of healthy conflict, speak with department heads, managers, team leaders, whoever. Get their perspective on what the current culture of conflict at work is. I guarantee that their perspective is going to be the one that matters. 

Why? Because they’re the ones that will be living the changes you want to implement.


Step 2: Announce Your Intent

Nothing says, “I want you to do X” like literally saying, “I want you to do X.” 

When a company is looking to change its culture, the leaders have to make the new culture seem important. That means standing in front of the team and announcing it. While I’m not a fan of drawing business comparisons with battle (I really dislike those folks who quote Art of War at work), but sometimes the shoe fits. If the troops are to trust that the commander expects courage out of every member of the unit, the commander needs to make an appearance on the front line to announce their expectations.

If you want your organization to practice healthy conflict, you need to tell them that. And, you need to tell them multiple times. The first time they’ll ignore you. The second they’ll listen. By time seven or eight, they may actually start trying it out.

How you announce your intention is up to you. It could be a good old fashion speech. Or, if you are feeling brave you could:

  • Invite an employee to discuss an issue with you publicly
  • Hold an open forum on an issue
  • Host Kaizen meetings (I love these things)

However you do it, keep doing it until people understand that you’re serious about it.

Step 3: Create A Safe Space For Conflict At Work

To be clear, I don’t mean build a thunder dome. That would be a PR, HR, and probably custodial disaster. You don’t want that.  What I do want you to do is create a time and place during which people in your organization are encouraged to openly and respectfully debate and discuss issues at hand. 

That an take any number of forms. The important thing, though, is that this is a dependable space. Members of your organization need to know that you are dedicated to their voices being heard, and that you want them to engage in healthy conflict. You do this by making this space a regular part of their work week. There are numerous ways to do this. You could:

It should come as no surprise that holding EOS Level 10 Meetings is my preferred solution. This style of meeting is specifically designed to give every member of a team a voice. Even better, it builds trust and efficiency at the same time. It’s without a doubt one of the most effective time saving and team building tools I’ve ever encountered. I’ve written a full guide on using it here.

However you decide to approach building this space, commit to protecting it. Not everyone is comfortable with conflict at work. Many see raising issues as a great way to get the ax. If you want your team to use the space, you need to be vigilante in ensuring that people using it are rewarded, not punished.


Step 4: Allow Teams To Solve Their Own Problems

As any parent, new manager, or octopus will tell you, letting go can be hard. When you leave your business in the hands of anyone other than yourself, you’re taking a risk. It leaves you with this feeling that you’re abandoning it, leaving it to be killed by the first competitor it bumps into. And, while I understand the feeling, you can ask any one who’s been raised by a helicopter mom or wrestled with an octopus. They’ll tell you that, if they’re going to survive, they need to be let go.

In a conflict resolution standpoint this means allowing issues to be kicked down to subordinate teams. You have to trust that they will use healthy conflict resolution strategies to solve the problem themselves.

If you can’t let your teams solve their own problems, you can’t ever really build a culture of healthy conflict at work.

Step 5: Train Good Managers

You managers are your strongest asset in implementing any wide scale change, especially a cultural one. These folks are your eyes, ears, and voice on the ground floor of your organization. If they don’t perfectly understand what you want the company to look like, you can’t really control the change. And, if they don’t have to tools to enact that change, it probably won’t be successful.

Even the best people in your organization require training from time to time. If you want teams to get great at solving their own problems in a healthy way, you are going to need managers that understand and are comfortable with healthy conflict.


Step 6: Reward Healthy Conflict

Again, I am not talking about setting up a thunder dome and giving the winner a prize. Just want to be clear on that. Do not set up a gladiator arena at work. That is not a healthy conflict strategy.

O.K. Now that we are past that. 

As complicated and intelligent as we are, human beings have a very simple approach to learning. Reward us and we will learn to repeat the behavior. Punish us and we will learn not to. It’s really as simple as that.  It isn’t always as easy as that (remember that son I was telling you about?), but that is the gist of it. We naturally repeat the behaviors we think will net us the greatest reward.

In a company that is attempting to build a culture of healthy conflict, you need to be rewarding those who pursue those strategies. Healthy conflict isn’t easy. In fact, it’s quite hard. The risk of pursuing healthy conflict in the workplace is everything from loss of job security to social isolation. And, the fact is, most people won’t take that risk unless they are damn sure there is a reward in it for them. 

The leadership of your organization has the responsibility of making sure those people who pursue healthy conflict at work are rewarded, not just in private but in public as well. 

You can do so in any number of ways, such as:

  • Issuing raffle tickets to people who put a suggestion in the suggestion box
  • Giving incentives to employees that attend conflict training
  • Publicly and regularly praising teams that are solving issues quickly and healthily

There are nearly infinite ways you can reward healthy conflict. The important thing is that you do so regularly and publicly.

This last step is more of an honorable mention. Recently I’ve been made aware of a little non-profit in the Detroit area that is trying to put healthy conflict and human interaction on the forefront of technology. This little app is just now in its alpha testing phase, but, as I understand, it’s fully usable from any internet connected device.

The app functions as a way of rating interactions and ways they were either a) rewarding or b) could have been improved. The idea is to encourage healthy and open discussion in both personal and community relationships. 

While it remains to be seen if this works as advertised, I’d say it’s at least worth mentioning that the tech world is starting to see healthy conflict as a space they can improve.

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