Bob Schultek
Author of The Gauntlet

To build a culture of shared accountability, a team must be capable of constructively debating conflicting perspectives about an issue that requires action. There can be no team commitment to a decision without resolving these differences. Mastering this conflict management process is a vital leadership skill. 

Productive conflict dialogue identifies gaps in team members’ positions on the target topic based on their individual experiences and expectations. The skillful use of questions and related discussion are used to explore the reasons for these gaps, and to determine points of agreement.  

The objective is to resolve the gaps and gain a deeper understanding of the issue at hand so that a team commitment can be secured which enables the necessary action. The challenge for a leader facilitating this dialogue is to refrain from prematurely inserting his or her perspective into the conversation to expedite a resolution. Achieving the objective, while strengthening the team’s bond, requires that the team have an opportunity to exchange views and resolve differences without the leader’s proactive influence.  

Guiding a conflict resolution discussion that will lead the team to reach a mutual understanding is like weaving a thread to connect ideas. Asking open-ended questions to discover the motivations behind the competing positions launches the necessary exploration, but how well the team actively listens and then engages with one another is what enables this dialogue to be productive in resolving competing perspectives. Are team members more curious about discovering and learning, or are they fixed on convincing the others? 

These discussions will often drift into individuals again expressing their opinions rather than asking questions or clarifying responses. Author Doug Johnston suggests two methods for leaders to monitor this questioning momentum. First, to sustain the exploration progress, use a tool called the Curiosity Quotient which tracks the number of questions asked versus the number of statements made; if the number of questions remains dominant, then curiosity remains and exploration is still ongoing. Next, evaluate the nature of the questions being asked to ensure that the resulting dialogue is moving the team towards the shared understanding that is necessary for securing commitment.

How effective is your conflict management process?

How might Johnston’s two suggestions strengthen your process?