We hear a lot about how workplace conflict can be a "good" thing. Conflict among team members is said to engender innovative ideas, provide fresh solutions to existing problems, and foster a sense of collaboration. Constructive workplace conflict supposedly takes the startup team to a new level.
But there are also compelling reasons why entrepreneurs fear conflict in the workplace. Talented, headstrong and creative individuals are likely to bump heads from time to time, and left unchecked, this may lead to a permanently dysfunctional environment. Such dysfunction can trigger a steep drop in productivity, nagging bouts of absenteeism, difficulty retaining top-performing employees and—worst of all—inferior customer service.
The stakes are too high to allow a startup team to overcome conflict on its own. When disagreements occur and egos clash, taking action is generally far better than pretending that conflict doesn't exist or hoping it will somehow miraculously just go away.
Here are tips to consider that may help you manage conflict in your startup team:
Make sure people know what they're supposed to do. Conflicts sometimes occur when job descriptions are fuzzy or job functions overlap from one employee to the next. People need to understand what they're responsible for and who they report to, or confusion may rush in to fill the gap. Clearly defined job descriptions and procedures for working together can significantly lessen the possibility of unproductive conflict.
Don't allow problems to fester. Entrepreneurs are naturally focused on those activities that move the new venture forward, not on those that appear to hold it back. But by ignoring a brewing conflict, you can fail to acknowledge the strong emotions various employees are carrying around with them, which may be distracting them from doing their jobs. Make sure your team knows you want to hear about conflict when it occurs and communicate your open door policy to all new employees.
Confront discord face-to-face. When the time comes to mediate conflict, you may not want to resort to texts or emails to get the job done. The quickest and most efficient tactic is often meeting face-to-face with the involved parties.
Following a few common-sense principles can facilitate resolution. Consider the following:
- Invite all relevant team members to a meeting in a neutral, distraction-free setting.
- Give team members time to prepare for the meeting.
- At the meeting itself, allow everyone equal time to state their case.
- Listen carefully and respectfully to what people say, without passing judgment. Acknowledge the value of each person's comments. People like to be heard before they can begin objectively reevaluating a negative situation.
- Don't allow the conversation to wander off on a tangent. Also, be on the lookout for any remarks that can be construed as overly personal or even intentionally hurtful. Such input should be discarded right away.
- Remain impartial throughout the discussion. In the early phase of the meeting, expressing your own opinions will only cloud the process. And by maintaining an even-handed tone, you'll encourage others to remain even-tempered as well.
- Seek out common ground. Suggest small compromises that differing parties may not have considered. Often, small changes in position lead to larger-scale concessions.
With a steady hand at the top, workplace conflict can result in greater teamwork and the introduction of new ideas. It's up to you to make sure conflict leads to this direction.