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How to Foster Task-Based Conflict on Your Teams

How to Foster Task-Based Conflict on Your Teams

There is an inherent tension between wanting to feel “safe” and the urge to innovate. Our motivation to stay inside this comfort zone often leads us to avoid conflict altogether, but true innovation requires us to debate new ideas and perspectives.

Written by:Tara A. Collison, Ph.D.

There is an inherent tension between wanting to feel “safe” – or comfortable – and the urge to innovate. Our motivation to stay inside this comfort zone often leads us to avoid conflict altogether, but true innovation requires us to discuss and debate new ideas and perspectives. The trick is to foster task-based conflict instead of relationship-based conflict. 

Signs of a Conflict-Avoidant Culture

In a conflict-avoidant workplace, the slightest disagreement can spur a series of unnecessary follow-up meetings, which can hinder productivity and waste valuable time. Avoidance can also manifest as tolerance of poor performance in the hope of avoiding a difficult conversation. Situations like these often arise when the perceived source of conflict is the person involved rather than the task at hand.

For example, I was working on a project with a couple of my colleagues. Two of us had very different perspectives on the best path forward, which made sense because we were representing different stakeholders. As we debated, our third colleague kept moving back until he was literally up against the wall. During the next break, multiple people approached us to ask if there was some underlying issue. While we appreciated the support, we were mystified. In our eyes, the debate was about reaching the right answer. Unfortunately, for the third person in the room, it was perceived as personal. 

 Task-Based or Personal?

Here’s the thing – with no way to constructively express opposing views, people will lose their motivation to innovate. It’s important for everyone to elicit diverse ideas and perspectives from the early stages of any task or project. So, how can you tell you the difference between task-based and relationship-based conflict? 

First, the need for task-based conflict emerges from a disagreement about a specific business decision – setting a new strategy, hiring and firing, creating a new product, offering a new service, entering a new market, etc. The conflict also never breaches personal boundaries or becomes threatening. But be careful – volume doesn’t always equal threat. 

If your team is passionate, the conflict may get loud, and that’s OK! Of course, this depends on your everyday office culture. The most important thing is to be aware of others, check-in with them, and hear their perspectives. Not everyone is comfortable with loud, and that’s OK too.

How to Encourage Your Team to Participate in Task-Based Conflict

Now you know how to recognize generative task-based conflict, but how do you encourage it? Truth be told, a lot of people are uncomfortable at first. After all, it goes against what we’ve been taught since kindergarten – say something nice or don’t say anything at all. So what do you do?

  • Create the shared understanding and expectation that there will and should be occasional tension on teams throughout your organization. This means you discuss the importance and normalcy of generative conflict on a somewhat regular basis – when hiring, at team meetings, and during monthly reviews.
  • Help your teams identify whether they are dealing with interpersonal friction or healthy task-based tension. Task-based conflict isn’t about picking fights or airing grievances, but it may be about a disagreement on processes between, for example, your sales and marketing team. 
  • Be very clear about the problem at the center of the conflict. If at any point you were to stop the conversation and ask, “What is the goal of this discussion?” everyone should know the answer. 
  • Contain the conflict to an environment when everyone understands the goal: create a new solution to a specific problem. It shouldn’t spill out at any after-work events or follow anyone home. 

Don’t be afraid of a little conflict! Not only is it normal, but it’s also productive. First, think about whether you foster a conflict-avoidance culture. If you are pro-conflict, is it task-based or relationship-based? Finally, encourage your team to engage in the right kind of conflict. When everyone is on the same page about not being on the same page, they can feel free to express opposing views and innovative opinions.

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