Good Versus Bad Conflict
You know the theory behind conflict, but how can you use this to proactively confront conflict among your team members? First, you must realize that you can't look at all team conflict in the same way. Some is bad and some is good. The difference between the classifications is the effect they have on your team.
Impact of Conflict
Those who think that all conflict is bad react out of fear. People who relish conflict and even go out of their way for a fight — no matter what the context — act out of anger. Both approaches are wrong. Conflict is not, of itself, always helpful or hurtful. The only measure of the quality of conflict is whether you can use it to help your team achieve its goals. If you can resolve the conflict and create something that advances the goals, then the conflict is helpful. If the resolution of conflict hinders progress toward the goals, then it is hurtful. This concept is slippery. A given conflict might be helpful to one team because of the particular strengths, weaknesses, and challenges the members face, but it might negatively affect another team member.
Sometimes you will be able to direct your team in moments of conflict. At those times, you can use the emotional and intellectual results as fodder. The material becomes a type of fertilizer that lets you improve and grow the results of your effort. At other times, conflict will hurt what you are trying to do. It might set one team member against another or could cause your team's goals to conflict with other important goals in your organization.
What Distinguishes Conflict
What makes the difference between helpful types of conflict and hurtful types of conflict? The answer comes back to conflict as the interaction process of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. What you seek is to keep pursuing your team's goals, which means not being stopped. If you are to proceed, you will run into roadblocks and conflict as surely as rain comes to Seattle. Those conflicts are unavoidable if you are going to achieve your goals. They are useful because solving them is a necessary step in making progress.
If you fail to pay attention, you will end up blocked — often in subtle ways that will cause your team to fail by going off course while assuming it is still on track. Be alert for these types of barriers so they don't slow you down unnecessarily.
Conflict becomes a real problem when it's a manifestation of ego on the part of team members. If you have two personalities that don't mix, you must solve the conflict to keep moving, and so the conflict is helpful. If some team members have weaknesses that act as barriers, overcoming that conflict keeps you on course to your goals.
The real test is the permanence of the source of conflict. When conflict is the product of ego, personal image, and ambition, addressing the issue doesn't get you past an inevitable barrier so much as it removes a shackle from your collective leg. To resolve the conflict, you spend energy that could otherwise go to solving a real obstruction. This is useless conflict because it is not going to disappear as you move past this point. Instead, you are only going to face it again.
Now for the no-leader's land in the middle. What might be useful to one group can be useless to another. That probably seems odd. How could a conflict that doesn't disappear become useful if it's just a waste of energy?
You want to transform the conflict by changing its dynamics. The conflict remains useless when it is conflict — or, putting it another way, when the solution is temporary. Even if you have a clash of egos, you can make progress by dealing with conflict if you move toward eliminating that source of contention in the future. What you need to do is find a way to move team members toward a new type of behavior or create a process that reduces or eliminates the problem. That transforms the useless into the useful. For example, if two people are blaming each other for a problem, get beyond the specific circumstances. Have them, with help, spell out their roles and responsibilities, evaluate where the two mesh, and decide what process they will use to eliminate similar events in the future before they become problems.