Why Strong Leaders Embrace Conflict — And Don't Avoid It Organizations that embrace artificial harmony will never produce high-performing teams.

By Jason Zickerman

Key Takeaways

  • Healthy conflict is not about avoiding tough conversations.
  • Healthy conflict and positive conflict resolution require flexibility and a willingness to adapt.
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Many business owners today believe conflict represents a negative dynamic within their companies and leadership roles. But that couldn't be further from the truth. In fact, healthy conflict can be a key propellor of organizational success.

In his book "The Five Dysfunctions of a Team," leadership expert Patrick Lencioni identifies common obstacles related to business leaders and the people they manage. Lencioni's five dysfunctions include issues surrounding trust, commitment, accountability and team mindset. But perhaps the most emotionally driven of these hurdles, and arguably the most challenging to remediate, is when business leaders possess a fear of conflict.

And he is right. I witness it all the time: well-meaning owners who view conflict only negatively and do everything they can to avoid it in themselves and their teams.

Fear of conflict presents itself as a bit of a paradox. On the one hand, those leaders who are mostly unwilling to engage in difficult conversations usually believe they are taking a respectful, professional and peaceful approach to problem-solving. Lencioni refers to this as artificial harmony. Ironically, conflict avoidance usually exacerbates a problem and routinely leaves missed opportunities on the table. Even when attempting to check out important issues, organizations that embrace artificial harmony will never produce high-performing teams. And nobody wants that.

So, what are so many business leaders getting wrong? Lencioni explains that there is bad conflict, and there is healthy conflict. The key is to distinguish between the two.

Related: 9 Steps To Create A Psychologically Safe Workplace

Bad conflict versus healthy conflict

Conflict and conflict resolution can be either healthy or unhealthy. Not many people would argue that a screaming match by the water cooler is constructive or professional. But like a wolf in sheep's clothing, unhealthy conflict can also manifest itself in more subtle ways. Quiet criticism, finger-pointing and hidden agendas can sneakily infiltrate positive interactions and transform them into toxic conflict. We see this a lot in organizations struggling with workplace silos and overly competitive company cultures.

In contrast, healthy conflict focuses on ideas, not people. Solutions, not blame. Collaboration, not egos. Open communication, transparency and respect are the cornerstones of healthy conflict. Even in the most challenging conversations, allowing for diverse perspectives can be a powerful catalyst for innovation and improvement.

High-performing teams welcome healthy conflict. They embrace debate on substance and ensure it is not personal. Though they may not always agree, the team respects and considers each other's opinions. All members are willing to have their ideas challenged so that the group as a whole achieves the best results.

Related: 6 Strategies to Resolve Conflict at Work

Building a culture of healthy conflict

Business leaders who wish to create an innovative and productive work environment must embrace and leverage healthy conflict. That means distinguishing whether there is a current problem in the manner that conflict is generally handled (or ignored) throughout the organization. And I will be frank here. Grappling with healthy conflict is usually a top-down issue. Leaders who embrace healthy conflict in their own approach seldom stand for toxic conflict or conflict avoidance within their organization.

So, as the leader of your business, healthy conflict resolution starts with you. Here are four steps that will help you get there.

1. Embrace Active Listening. Listening to respond and listening to understand are two entirely different things. Particularly in charged conversations, those with unhealthy conflict habits often find themselves talking over others. Interruptive communication is a strong indicator that a person needs to hone their active listening skills. To foster active listening, commit to not cutting others off, restating what was said, and asking clarifying questions.

2. Model Empathy. Conflict is often charged with big emotions and personal connection to an issue. And that's not necessarily a bad thing. Recognize and be thankful for the degree to which your team cares or is passionate about the conflict topic. Acknowledge their feelings and validate their concerns. While someone might be expressing themselves overtly fervently, empathy is a conduit for healthy connection and conflict resolution.

Related: 7 Steps for Keeping Conflict Healthy

3. Foster a Collaborative Mindset. Collaboration is an extraordinarily effective tool in healthy conflict and conflict resolution. Encourage teamwork throughout the business, reinforce the concept that solutions require a group effort, and let it be known that all perspectives are welcomed and valued. Remember that fostering a culture of collaboration also reaps other substantial rewards throughout the organization.

4. Be Open to Change. Healthy conflict and positive conflict resolution require flexibility and a willingness to adapt. Be open to modifying your position or solution related to the conflicting issue. Otherwise, your team will eventually realize their input doesn't really matter. Particularly in this rapidly changing business environment, understand that adapting to change builds bridges and broadens opportunities.

Remember, healthy conflict is not about avoiding tough conversations but rather addressing disputes and disagreements in a way that promotes connection and praises commitment throughout the organization.

Jason Zickerman

Entrepreneur Leadership Network® Contributor

CEO of The Alternative Board | Business Development and Growth Advisor

Jason Zickerman is the President and CEO of The Alternative Board, an international organization helping business owners and their leadership teams improve business and change lives.

Want to be an Entrepreneur Leadership Network contributor? Apply now to join.

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