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Managing a team is all about balance. Project leadership has shifted away from the traditional top-down ‘command and control’ approach and moved towards open, collaborative, agile structures. 

But a more liberal approach can produce additional challenges, especially when it comes to managing team conflict

In this article, we explore healthy vs destructive conflict and how you can nurture creativity and collaboration whilst recognising the warning signs of your team culture becoming toxic and hostile. 

How to identify healthy and destructive conflict

So, what is the difference between healthy and destructive conflict?  

Healthy conflict places effective resolution at the centre of a disagreement, whereas destructive conflict can involve antagonisation, belittling and, consequently, poor project performance. 

Despite the modern associations, conflict can be beneficial in the context of a project group. It can result from thought diversity and different experiences and skill sets, all of which are considered beneficial for business.

The project manager needs to foster a safe environment that promotes open discussion where individuals are not afraid to share their ideas and challenge group opinions 

As mentioned above, constructive conflict needs to be nurtured carefully. 

So, how can you avoid destructive conflict? 

Of course, conflict can blow up more easily in open, collaborative structures, so a well-designed project framework is essential to foster an atmosphere of open enquiry and creative conflict.  

Become skilled at constructive conflict management by utilising our six tips below. 

1) Align goals and roles.

Conflict often arises out of confusion. If people know what they’re doing, why it’s happening and what part they are playing, misunderstandings are less likely. Communicate clearly from the start and maintain alignment as the project progresses. 

2) Keep consistent behaviours & ways of working. 

Again, if expectations are clear at the start, adherence is more likely. Ideally, you’ll facilitate your project team to agree on behaviours and ways of working, maintain an open discussion around frameworks for conflict management and ensure an effective feedback process etc. at the project’s start and every two weeks until the project end (if you’re fully remote you might do this every 6-8 weeks).  

3) Create opportunities for bonding.

Creating space and time for people to engage socially or out of the office means your team will likely have deeper relationships. This may put them in a stronger or more comfortable position to solve conflicts independently, without involving you. 

4) Consider new hires carefully. 

When hiring, consider whether someone is likely to engage constructively and move the project forwards, and stress-test this at the interview. If you think someone will obstruct, destroy and add negative tension, you might want to think twice about hiring them!

5) Encourage networking. 

Either across the business or with other key or relevant teams. Networks help to break down silos and prevent destructive inter-team conflict. 

6) Educate yourself, as well as the team. 

Read around the space. Invest in training. Share learnings with the team - perhaps you can run an away day focused on team-building and conflict management. 

Final thoughts on healthy vs destructive conflict 

Much of conflict management relies on good communication, and as a project manager, it’s your job to ensure your communication skills are effective.

Talking openly about different working styles and even addressing the difference between constructive and destructive conflict can be a great place to start. 

You can run a workshop and role-play scenarios, giving your team the space to consider how different personality types might misunderstand one another in interactions and how they can mitigate against that if it happens. 

For more advice on managing teams, take a look at our article on 10 habits for successful project managers.

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