3 Ways Leaders Use Conflict to Find Creative Solutions to Problems

Tension is healthy when you give it space to spark creative solutions rather than erode the relationships among team members.


Every team is inherently dysfunctional. It’s the differences in people, process, and priorities that create tensions. Dysfunction isn’t bad — those individuals and their differences bind the team together like eggs in a cake. Without the egg, those ingredients won’t stick together.

As a leader, you want your team’s talent to contribute to a high-performing team. That means developing your own capacity for using tension to have comprehensive, constructive conversations. Considering that avoiding confrontation is the easier option, voicing frustration and acknowledging tension is, in fact, functionally dysfunctional.

These conversations provide the opportunity for people to validate each other and continue to work together (or not). This is the functionally dysfunctional part. The desire to communicate is good; however, how it plays out is often bumpy.

The Choice Is Yours

Global teams, in particular, face unique challenges that often lead to dysfunction.

As a leader, recognize that tension is good, productive, and creative. Allowing conflict to fester too long erodes trust and productivity, so there is a fine balance involved in figuring out when to get involved and when to allow it to flow.

It’s your job to push people to figure their crap out and let tension spur creative solutions. Here are some healthy ways to do that.

1. Be direct — with context.

While I happen to be direct, I’ve also learned how to round my edges. Choosing your moments and not letting things decay is the key.

Recently, I had a client in California who was communicating with an American who worked in China. Both are American. While preparing for a presentation, my client received a text message from the contractor demanding $370,000 to pay for services rendered. This came as a total surprise with no warning of the invoice.

Though he had asked for a budget with projected dates to ensure funding, this was never produced in the way that my client expected. He was furious. He wanted to yell, “Seriously? We’ve had this conversation 18 different times, you f***ing moron.”

Though that outburst would have made my client feel better, it would not have solved the problem, and the relationship would have broken.

Instead, he took a breath and said, “Hey, I know we’ve had this conversation many times. I’m really frustrated right now at the situation, not at you. I realize I am not effectively communicating what I need from your company. We are crossing wires. It’s important that together we have a plan with date, money, and time. I didn’t know this balloon payment was coming. I need a week to fund the invoice.”

That’s direct; the relationship is not in peril — he owned his part in the misunderstanding in a respectful and solution-seeking manner. He was still pissed off, but he successfully bought time to deal with it.

2. Understand the context of different relationships.

In the United States, time is money, and relationships are secondary.

In many other countries in Asia and Latin America, relationships are primary, which means that the relationship is the way to get things done in a fluid lots-of-meals-and-drinks manner. What this means for you is this: Take your time with people — know it’s a longer game that goes beyond a handshake or lunch. Even when you hear, “Yes, we’re in!” the relationship isn’t yet solidified. Not even close. Spend less time being transactional and more time cultivating the relationship, person to person.

People want to be known. They want to be asked about what they do and what they’ve accomplished. Allow people to talk about the value they bring, and show your interest in their experiences and contributions.

Take your time. Slow down, reach out, and be courteous and forthcoming to develop relationships that function beyond the world of work. Give a little of yourself, and you will get much more back.

3. Pick your battles.

Don’t fight for what’s “right” all the time.

A kick-ass Chinese female leader I coach, who is the CFO of a well-known brand, is masterful at remembering data 15 years back with three different companies she worked for. In her current role, she intimately knows how the numbers interrelate — instantly. When she identifies a mistake or “incorrect thinking,” she talks down in a haughty tone to her colleagues because she is right and they are wrong… again. Her exacting demeanor doesn’t allow the minor miscalculation to just exist.

An American woman at the same company is also kick-ass smart and drives the vision of the business. She is¬†snarky to leaders who don’t listen to her agenda and dismisses those who don’t align with her view. Both women are difficult to work with, and people brace themselves for meetings with them.

So, two women from two different cultures, and both play to being “right.”

Although they are often right in their thinking, the way they express their correctness leaves colleagues rolling their eyes and disconnecting. Needing to be right on everything erodes trust and patience. A bit of emotional intelligence coupled with consideration of others goes a long way to interrupting that pattern.

Little kerfuffles will happen. How do you handle them? Do you allow for tension? Do you avoid the tough conversations? Do you opt out because “conflict is uncomfortable”? If you avoid it, people will work around you to get clarity; so stay in rather than out.

Tension is healthy when you give it space to spark rather than erode. While tension is uncomfortable, it provokes solutions because no one wants to get burned in the hot seat.

You can view the original article on Inc. here.