“This isn’t working! I am so frustrated! Trying to work with her is impossible when she has no value for my opinions. Can you please just put one of us is in charge, so we can make a decision and get this done?”
Amy, one of my direct reports, came to me immediately with this complaint after I returned from a two-week vacation. Before I had left, I had given her and another direct report, Justine, the assignment to work together to complete a project. I now discovered that the project, which was time-sensitive, had completely stalled because these they were in total disagreement and could barely talk to one another.
Soon after I talked with Amy, Justine came to me to express her frustration with Amy and to ask me to create an authority structure—i.e., put one of them in charge of the other—so they could achieve the project goal.
Sensing the opportunity in the moment, I responded, “Let’s see if we can work this out relationally rather than through an authority structure, which will create a win-lose scenario. I want to explore if we can find a win-win. The goal is not to resolve conflict by using authority to overcome disagreement.”
Creating a Safe Place for Healthy Conflict
As a leader, I know that a key part of creating a healthy team culture is cultivating the ability for team members to have productive conflict and maintain connection even through disagreement. Conflict reveals that a level of trust exists within the team that allows each team member to bring their true self to the table. The absence of conflict, on the other hand, is often a sign of dysfunction due to lack of trust on a team.
Conflict is healthy and productive in an environment where team members are free to disagree, discuss issues, share opinions, and challenge one another to consider different perspectives on matters that are important to them—while refusing to allow it to become personal. It’s important that team members learn that when someone disagrees with them, it does not mean that they do not like, value, or trust them.
However, most people are scared of conflict and haven’t learned or practiced the skills to ensure that conflict is productive. When team members are uncomfortable with conflict and don’t push themselves towards vulnerability and honesty, they will find ways to avoid it, which ultimately becomes destructive to the team culture.
Usually when team members don’t resolve differences with one another, they vent their struggle to someone else in the team, which undermines trust and invites division. As in the story above, when team members withdraw following a disagreement, instead of moving towards the goal of understanding and connection, they will quickly and easily come to negative conclusions that feel true.
Creating a Pathway to Understanding
In this scenario, Amy believed that Justine was too rigid and not open to any idea that was not her own. Justine felt frustrated that Amy was ignoring a concern she had, which led her to believe she were not valued in the process.
In both cases, once they each believed that the other person was the problem, they stopped listening or valuing the thoughts, opinions, and needs of the other, and the goal in working together shifted to trying to win by getting what they wanted, independent of the other. They each presented their case to me as to why their perspective was the correct way to move forward with the project, hoping for my agreement and empowerment.
I immediately set up a meeting for the three of us to sit down together. I explained that the goal of the meeting was to see if we could work through the disagreement relationally, find a place of understanding and help one another get what they needed to be able to work together and get the project back on track.
I invited them into honesty with one another, but set the healthy communication guidelines. They could only talk about themselves and what they were experiencing, feeling, and needing. They could not make accusatory statements about the other person, such as, “You aren’t open to my ideas.” I said that I was there mainly to observe the conversation, and that I would not get involved unless I needed to remind them of the goals or guidelines of the conversation.
Justine tentatively agreed to go first. “I feel really concerned that there may be some legal issues around what we are trying to do,” she said. “I know it is unlikely that we would ever get pursued over it, but integrity is important to me. I want to feel completely above question. When I brought this to you, I felt brushed aside which made me feel devalued in my perspective. That made it really hard for me to hear any more of your ideas.”
Amy responded next. As the conversation unfolded between the two women, there were lots of pauses as they searched for words to express their own feelings or to restate something that started out with something like, “You didn’t care.” Whenever a “you” statement would slip out, I would quietly raise my hand to signal what was happening and they would catch themselves to stop and reconsider.
At one point, Amy turned to me and commented, “Wow, this is extremely difficult to only talk about myself!”
However, as Amy and Justine were finally able to express, “I felt ignored,” “I felt unheard,” “I felt devalued,” it was fun to watch understanding enter the room. In the end, they gave each other a natural, heartfelt apology without any coaching necessary. They both realized that they had been so focused on getting their own needs met in the situation that they had not considered how the other person was being affected.
“I am so sorry you experienced me that way,” Justine said. “I actually really want you to feel valued when you work with me.”
“I am so sorry that you felt ignored,” Amy said in return. “That is not my heart at all.”
The Beauty of Resolution
Soon after this, I was able to ask, “What do each of you need from the other to continue working together to get this project finished?”
As Amy and Justine verbalized their needs with the understanding that they had now gained, they both committed to adjusting so that the other could feel heard and valued in the process. Amy agreed to look closer at the legal issue Justine had raised, and Justine agreed to listen and think through Amy’s new ideas without immediately pointing out the weakness in them so that she could feel invited in and maintain her excitement for the project.
Amy and Justine left the meeting excited about the perspective they had gained, how easy it had been to work through their differences, and how quickly their hearts had opened towards one another. They also expressed their enthusiasm to work their differences out by themselves in the future with the skills they now had!
These are the moments I live for as a leader. I want my team to experience the beauty, power, efficiency, and impact that come when they push past their fear into vulnerability, and come out the other side feeling understood, valued, and trusted. I also want to protect them and the organization from unresolved conflict, which erodes trust and productivity.
Leaders, trust on our team is our most valuable asset, and this is why we must empower our teams to practice healthy conflict. I encourage you to be vigilant over the interactions between your team members and help them move toward each other when they want to move away. As we lead with courage and fight for trust and connection, our team will follow!
P.S- Carla and I are writing a book together coming out at the end of the year! Be on the lookout!