As a Leader, Can You Learn to Embrace Healthy Conflict?

Running a company teaches you thousands of new lessons on a daily basis. But one lesson that stands out to me from the past years is the importance of embracing healthy conflict instead of avoiding it.

Most of us don’t like conflict, and I think that’s especially true of entrepreneurs. My co-founders and I are naturally friendly guys who like making people happy—and that’s one reason we started our own company in the first place. Would I rather say “yes” to someone or say “no?” Easy question. If you run your own business, you might have a similar habit yourself.

Steering clear of conflict comes from a well-meaning place, but it can do more harm than good.

Steering clear of conflict comes from a well-meaning place. But “artificial harmony” can do more harm than good. You might be hesitant to voice an objection, an idea, or openly discuss a problem. Some important conversations just don’t happen, which leaves people feeling frustrated and unresolved. And avoiding a conflict doesn’t make the source of the conflict go away, of course.

At Jimdo we’ve always valued being friendly, positive, and kind to one another. But as I looked around, I could see signs of artificial harmony too. I realized that to change this dynamic, I had to start with myself. How could I encourage more well-intentioned debate and honest discussion?

It was time to move out of my comfort zone. At first, it felt awkward, but I started to really push myself to say what I wanted, without tiptoeing around anything. I learned to recognize that when I get a certain tense feeling in my stomach, it’s a sign that I’m avoiding an issue. I have to stop and think, ok, I really need to be honest here and follow through. It’s still not my natural instinct, but it has gotten much easier.

This process goes hand-in-hand with building trust. When you trust each other, it’s much easier to open up and say what you think, and it’s much easier to accept feedback and work through disagreements. Everyone on a team has to know that a conflict isn’t meant personally. And they have to see the results too—that when we’re honest about what’s working and what isn’t, positive changes happen. It’s a culture shift that takes time but has definitely made us stronger.

In fact, learning to embrace conflict has actually been freeing. Once we get through the conflict, we have a plan that we’re all going to stick to, and we don’t need to revisit it over and over again. We have the compass points. That frees us up to accomplish what we want to do in a focused, energized way. Our work becomes more direct, more honest, and ultimately more satisfying.

Once you resolve to face conflicts head-on, you actually start having fewer of them.

That’s been the most interesting lesson of all. Once you resolve to face conflicts head-on, you actually start having fewer of them.

If you find yourself in a similar situation—maybe you’re avoiding a tough conversation, or you’re in a group that tends to push disagreements under the rug—I can tell you that, like all resolutions and new habits, it gets easier with practice.

I hope sharing this process with you has been helpful, and I look forward to hearing some of your own resolutions for 2018!