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Conflict can increase employee engagement

Updated: Aug 15, 2023

Wait, what?

You didn't read that wrong. You can use conflict to increase employee engagement.

It seems to me that since the pandemic, a big struggle is employee engagement. Managers want to figure out how to revive engagement from the dead- Lazarus style. Even before the pandemic, I would hear through the grapevine that managers were trying hard to crack the code on employee engagement. It is as if there is an invisible divide between managers and boots-on-the-ground employees making it hard to relate and understand what it takes for people to become invested in the work required to make goals a reality.

Here is an obvious way (to me) that organizations can invite employees to care more than simply moving through the motions, clocking in and clocking out, without contributing beyond the task list of their job description. But before I go any further, let’s get on the same page about what employee engagement is. There isn’t just one definition which makes it even harder to pin down and pull apart to understand the formula that yields employee engagement. Here are some definitions I found in an article published in SHRM:

Quantum Workplace – Employee engagement is the strength of the mental and emotional connection employees feel toward their places of work.

Gallup – Engaged employees as those who are involved in, enthusiastic about and committed to their work and workplace.

Willis Towers Watson – Engagement is employees' willingness and ability to contribute to company success.

Aon Hewitt – Employee engagement is "the level of an employee's psychological investment in their organization."

We are asking employees to bring their emotional bandwidth and inner resources to the table to push the organizational mission forward. We are asking for the most important and scarce resource since the pandemic because the uncertainty of the COVID months squeezed the life spark out of most of us.

"So, how does conflict help?" in script font

If you’ve been following on Instagram, we often share about the different types of conflict. Task conflict is the kind of positive conflict that you want to see in your team. When you have engaged people they will have strong opinions on how to proceed with a certain task. And if you want conflict to remain in the task conflict category, you need to ensure that everyone’s perspective is heard, appreciated, and welcome. Try to find a way to use all the pieces that people are bringing to the table. You may have to shuffle and rearrange them, but the more you integrate the pieces that the team is bringing, the more you will notice that your people continue to engage.

But why?? Because if people care enough to bring up a concern, an idea, a thought, a question, and you dismiss it, let it fall by the wayside, or you shift your responsibility to lead the team on someone else and aren’t playing moderator, you won’t see those people show up again.

But if you take your responsibility seriously and make sure that everyone in the team is being heard and their concerns addressed, your people will know that the energy it takes to be invested in the process or the outcome is honored, welcome, and not taken for granted. Task conflict is a great opportunity to show respect for everyone’s opinions and the value of how they filter the world.

If you know even a little bit about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs then apply it to the team dynamic. At the bottom of the hierarchy, physiological needs and safety needs are the foundation of what drives people’s behavior. Paying people a livable wage and ensuring that they are physically safe while doing the job takes care of the first two levels. The next level is love and belonging. When you build a work culture of healthy conflict and honest communication, you are forming an ecosystem where psychological safety can flourish. Your team doesn’t need to be the same to fit in, but they need to feel respected and appreciated to feel like they belong.

Egg carton with a dozen eggs that are all different but still belong.

Once the first three levels of universal human needs are met, you see esteem and self actualization emerge. The esteem level is about respect, self-esteem, status, recognition, strength and freedom. The last level, the triangle at the top, is self-actualization and it is the desire to be the most that one can be. If your people are too preoccupied with how they are going to make ends meet and they find themselves in survival mode, there is no bandwidth left to drive the need to excel at their jobs. If your work culture doesn’t center around psychological safety, your employees will be focused on not rocking the boat hoping to keep their jobs. That looks like putting your head down and never disagreeing and just waiting to do what they are told. Are you beginning to see the full picture yet?

Healthy conflict is an opportunity to meet the esteem level of human need by recognizing people’s thoughtful process and the fact that they are paying attention. When we are moving through the Vision Mapping process, every person in the team gets to choose their own goals for the quarter. They need to think about what makes it to the priority list to ensure that the overarching goal for the year is on track to be met. That right there is the freedom, strength, recognition, and respect part of the esteem level in the hierarchy of needs.

When teams commit to using the goal tracker and scorecard that we share during the Vision Mapping process, they get to be recognized during staff meetings for their progress on their goals. The recognition, the fact that they chose the goals for themselves, and knowing that their contribution actually makes a difference, connects directly to the pinnacle of self-actualization: to be the best one can be. Once your team reaches this level, they are intrinsically motivated to excel. Because they find personal fulfillment and meaning in doing their jobs exceptionally well. And it is a joy to share and celebrate with the rest of the team.

If you don’t feel adept at hosting positive conflict with your team, that is completely understable given that we live in a culture that is afraid of conflict. We are deeply motivated to support leaders to sharpen their skills so their teams can reflect the benefits that come from psychological safety. Once you see it, you can unsee it. And once you learn it, you can’t unlearn it. The value of the application and execution of this knowledge will revolutionize your team dynamics. And you will welcome productive conflict as an opportunity to deepen trust, a sense of belonging, and watch your team become deeply invested and self-motivated.


Need some help with directions as you traverse this leadership journey? We'd love to partner with you. Check out the links below to learn more about coaching and to get on the waitlist for our next workshop series.

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