Hybrid work: 9 ways to encourage healthy team conflict

Conflict is part of every work environment, but managing it in the hybrid work model can be challenging. Consider this advice to maintain healthy, productive team communications
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Long-distance relationships are hard.

That’s as true in working situations as it is in our personal lives. When you’re talking about relationships within a hybrid work team, with some employees working remotely and others in the office, maintaining good relations can be even trickier.

“When everyone isn’t in the same room, or office for that matter, it can be easier for communication to break down,” says Dr. Sunni Lampasso, executive coach and founder of Shaping Success. “Hence, having a mixture of in-office and remote workers can create increased miscommunication and conflict avoidance opportunities.”

[ Want a primer on hybrid work? Read What is a hybrid work model? Read also: Hybrid work: 4 best practices for fairness. ]

Conflict is inevitable whenever human beings are working together. But managing it in a healthy way is not only essential to a positive workplace environment but also important to reaping the benefits of differing points of view.

Avoiding conflict can lead to decreased productivity, dysfunctional relationships, and increased turnover.

“Managing conflict is an essential communication skill in the workplace that helps build relationships, solve problems, and create cohesive teams,” Lampasso explains. “Conversely, avoiding conflict can lead to decreased productivity, dysfunctional relationships, and increased turnover.”

How to encourage healthy conflict

For many IT leaders, managing the hybrid team is a new experience altogether. And refereeing disagreements at a distance is a challenge. But there are actions they can take to encourage healthy conflict and resolution and make sure everyone is fighting fair.

1. Recognize the upside of disagreements

The teams that get along the best aren’t always the best performers. “Without conflict we can’t get to strong commitments on our teams,” says Jeanet Wade, business consultant and author of The Human Team: So, You Created a Team But People Showed Up! “The ‘storming’ always happens before the ‘norming’ and ‘performing’. We get stronger outcomes if everyone contributes and collaborates. This will require sharing opinions, knowledge and skills that can challenge the team.”

2. Encourage differing points of view

Diversity of thought leads to better solutions in the end. “Leaders of high-performing teams consistently convey the importance of conflict and push the team to engage in constructive debate, even to the point that the tension makes team members uncomfortable, to generate the best decisions,” says Andy Atkins, practice leader at BTS Boston.

This can be trickier in the hybrid world. “It is more difficult to gauge team members’ reactions, or test the temperature in the room, and it is easier for team members themselves to withdraw from the conversation,” says Atkins. Therefore, leaders must be more deliberate in creating a culture that encourages speaking up.

The most successful leaders not only model the willingness to face conflict themselves, but also help team members express their own points of view. “It helps if the team leader takes care to reserve his or her own observations in discussions to allow others to speak first, and to deliberately draw out different opinions around the table before moving on,” says Atkins. “This is particularly important in teams where one or a few tend to dominate the discussion, and when the team is remote.”

[ Where is your team's digital transformation work stalling? Get the eBook: What's slowing down your Digital Transformation? 8 questions to ask. ]

3. Create an atmosphere of trust

Data from more than 1,000 senior executives who took the Bates Executive Presence Index leadership feedback survey looked at whether were statistically significant differences between leaders who led high-performing teams and those who had difficulties leading a high-performing team. The differentiating characteristics of high-performing team leaders boil down to two critical themes, according to analysis of the data: conflict and trust.

“Healthy conflict and debate are central to creating and leading a high-performing team, to allow for the airing of diverse views and constructive debate, and ultimately collaborating on the best, most innovative, insightful solution,” says Atkins. The secret ingredient to constructive conflict is trust. “Leaders of high-performing teams keep the conflict constructive by delivering an environment of trust and safety to speak up and be heard. Team members tolerate the tension and respond productively because they believe the leader has the greater good in mind.”

4. Set ground rules ahead of time

Conflicts in remote work and hybrid environments aren’t really that much different than in-person. “They simply require more time and attention,” says Wade. It’s helpful to set expectations about acceptable behavior that the whole team understands. Some might include: always assume the best intentions, be clear when bringing up a new idea, and prepare audiences for tough conversations.

5. Resist the urge to avoid conflicts that arise

It may feel easier to skip over dealing with issues when you're working remotely. But that’s a big mistake. “Avoiding conflict can fuel feelings of anger and resentment. Here are some tips to encourage conflict resolution,” says Lampasso. “Don’t avoid it – accept and acknowledge the other person’s feelings, regardless of whether or not you agree.”

6. Focus on ideas, not individuals

 To keep conflict constructive, leaders need to help limit the emotionality of debate and foster an exchange of ideas. This, again, they can model. “Staying calm and not getting swept up into the emotions is important, as is helping others on the team keep calm and focused,” says Atkins. “It helps when the leader takes clear steps to communicate their acceptance of varied perspectives and opinions, and to inject focus if things are getting heated or off-topic.”

IT leaders may also consider coaching others on how to do this. “This two-pronged approach of meeting facilitation and individual coaching can set an example and provide clarity and specificity for team members to understand what to do differently to keep debate vigorous but civil,” Atkins explains.

7. Practice active listening

Whenever there is some discord, each person involved should be allowed to express their feelings without interruption, Lampasso advises. Therefore, it’s critical to practice or encourage active listening, whereby the one party fully listens to the other person and then summarizes what they’ve said.

8. Model empathy and vulnerability

Understanding others’ perspectives is a foundational element of emotional intelligence and a critical skill when encouraging and managing healthy conflict in the hybrid workplace. Likewise, vulnerability goes a long way. “Admitting mistakes shows that you are human, which can help you earn credibility and respect,” Lampasso says.

9. Know when to table the debate

 As important as it is to foster healthy conflict, it’s also critical to know when to put an issue to bed. “Leaders of high-performing teams are able to identify the juncture at which the discussion has raised a sufficient range of ideas, opinions, and challenges, and they help to guide the team along the path to a decision,” says Atkins of BTS Boston. “This means stepping in if the team is succumbing to analysis paralysis or staying mired in the weeds of a debate. Ensure the team has done their research, and prepared well for the conversation, and then take the step to prompt and support their taking intelligent risks when it’s time.”

[ Get exercises and approaches that make disparate teams stronger. Read the digital transformation ebook: Transformation Takes Practice. ]

Stephanie Overby is an award-winning reporter and editor with more than twenty years of professional journalism experience. For the last decade, her work has focused on the intersection of business and technology. She lives in Boston, Mass.