If you don’t know how to handle dissent and conflict with your team, you’re missing out on a vital tool for innovation, problem-solving and growth. Take Jennifer and Jack , a husband and wife who owned a high-end restaurant and who turned to Robert Ferguson, executive coach and co-author of Making Conflict Work: Harnessing the Power of Disagreement, to help them figure out what was wrong when high employee turnover threatened their hopes of expanding.
Like many owners of small businesses, Jennifer and Jack were passionate about their restaurant. They were delivering fabulous food in a beautiful setting, but they couldn’t keep employees. Without an experienced, loyal staff it would be impossible to open additional restaurants.
Ferguson quickly discovered that the couple’s passion was experienced as volatility by their staff. When an employee reported a problem, Jennifer and Jack would blow up at the employee and at each other.
That was the case when a waiter told them about a pattern of customer complaints about slow service. “I studied the business and learned that the delay in service was not due to the waiters but to the system of how orders flowed through the kitchen,” Ferguson says. “The different chefs who worked on different evenings didn’t have the same system for getting the food out. This caused confusion. It was a business system problem, not an employee problem. I told the couple they were making their employees afraid to share problems or suggest improvements because they shot the messenger.”
With coaching by Ferguson, Jennifer and Jack learned how to encourage healthy conflict. And separate marriage counseling helped them become less combative with each other. “It wasn’t quick or easy,” Ferguson says. “But over time they built a more successful business and expanded. And they became happier in their marriage, too.”
Could you be stifling the kind of constructive conflict that can help you grow your business? Here are some tactics, adapted from Making Conflict Work by Peter T. Coleman and Robert Ferguson, that you should be practicing:
1. Do you explore your employees’ perspectives without immediate judgment? While you may eventually reject a recommendation, make sure to listen in such a way that keeps the ideas coming.
2. Do you stay calm during a conflict? Realize that everyone makes mistakes. When a subordinate discloses a mistake, take care not to overreact. As a result, people may begin hiding mistakes from you.
3. Do you practice and reward candor? Don’t lie, avoid or tiptoe around issues. Make sure that your team can count on you to be straightforward at all times, including when in conflict.
4. Are you approachable and accessible? While you can’t drop everything you’re doing the second someone wants your attention, make it relatively easy to approach you—even if it’s something you may not agree with or want to hear.
5. Do you share things about yourself? Open up about yourself to encourage the kinds of free-flowing back-and-forth and creative tension that lead to innovation. Let people get to know you personally.
If you don’t adhere to the principles outlined in this list, consider enlisting a close colleague, a mentor, a friend or a coach to help you develop your skills at managing conflict.