In the almost 18 years of ombudsing, I consistently see two truths: we avoid conflict because we think it’s bad and we avoid it because we are not trained in how to manage conflict effectively.  When we avoid conflict in the workplace, we let assumptions fester into “truths”, avoid important conversations, and fail to progress. We are told to be “team players” and “get on the bus”, which can often mean, ‘shut up and keep your head down.’ As a result, the best information is kept out of the conversation, there is no room for opposing views. 

Laine Davey explores this further in her article “An Exercise to Help Your Team Feel More Comfortable with Conflict”.   She asserts that conflict training rarely gets transferred into practical and consistent skills, so we need to plan for conflict. How we collectively view our role in the workplace fosters a negative perception of conflict.  Think back to your workplace – remember those pictures and images at work about teamwork (think skydivers holding hands, people on a boat rowing in the same direction)? Davey says these images and the ‘get on the bus or get off’ messages, leave zero room for disagreement  portraying those who do speak up as obstacles to team success. 

Productive conflict, according to Davey, requires embedding the expectation for conflict into your processes. There are “natural tensions” in the workplace – think of budget priorities, leadership decisions, etc. Davey says making this a natural part of your team’s dynamics normalizes conflict and allows space for dialogue where no one is seen as an impediment to the team.  

To implement this idea in your workplace, Davey suggests creating a visual to represent each role on the team. Next, ask each role the following questions:

  1. What is the unique value of this role on this team? What should this person be paying attention to that no one else is? What would we miss if this role wasn’t here?
  2. On which stakeholders is this role focused? Whom does it serve? Who defines success?
  3. What is the most common tension this role puts on team discussions? What one thing does the person in this role have to say that frequently makes others bristle?

This exercise  highlights the natural conflict of the various roles and normalizes it. 

Embed these questions into your roles and make conflict a natural part of your team’s dynamics.   

By: Lisa Neale, Associate Director, University of Colorado Denver/Anschutz Medical Campus Ombuds Office