How to foster conflict—the right kind—on your team

Highlight and stop passive-aggressive behavior, expert recommends

Sometimes having too little conflict in the workplace can be a problem, Liane Davey writes for Harvard Business Review.

If nobody is expressing their concerns for fear of rocking the boat, then resentments can fester and harm team dynamics. It may seem counterintuitive, but team leaders should foster conflict—the right kind—to limit passive-aggressive behaviors and bring issues into the open so they can be addressed publicly, Davey says.
Davey recommends three ways to create productive conflict on your team.

Related: To build a high-performance team, embrace diverse work styles

Set ground rules. Encouraging people to express conflicting views is not the same as allowing people to be unprofessional. Let your employees know that you're concerned that not all opinions are being expressed but set expectations for how they should address contentious issues.

Create the space for dissent. At the end of a meeting, ask the team for their input: What important issues haven't yet been discussed? "You want people to feel like they are contributing positively by raising a conflicting perspective," Davey writes.

When staff members do raise conflicting opinions, keep the conversation going by asking follow-up questions that lend each idea credence, without necessarily endorsing it.

Identify passive-aggressive behavior—in all its forms. Passive-aggressive behavior can manifest in many ways, from negative body language to sarcastic jokes. Publicly address it when you see it, Davey says, such as asking staff why they're rolling their eyes. Highlighting episodes of passive-aggressive behavior discourages employees from engaging them—and over time, they will see that open discussion is a better option.

Shut down unhelpful back channels. "Those meetings after the meeting need to stop," Davey writes. If team members comes to you to discuss agenda items after the fact, ask why they didn't raise their concerns during the meeting and encourage them to speak up in the future (Davey, Harvard Business Review, 1/25).

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