- Although conflict is often perceived as negative, a healthy amount of workplace conflict can be valuable to the growth of an organization.
- Healthy conflict allows for more creativity, stronger ideas and more engaged employees.
- Debates, competition and industry disruption are all examples of conflict that can lead to fresh perspectives and growth for a business.
The world is rife with conflict, from terrorism to Facebook fights, so it may seem wise to try to remove conflict from our places of employment. Eliminating conflict may make for a more peaceful workplace, but it can ultimately hurt a business's growth.
"When conflict exists, it generally indicates commitment to organizational goals, because the players are trying to come up with the best solution," wrote productivity expert Laura Stack in an Aviation Pros article. "This, in turn, promotes challenge, heightens individual regard to the issues and increases effort. This type of conflict is necessary. Without it, an organization will stagnate."
What is beneficial about healthy forms of interoffice conflict?
- It fosters creativity. Stephen Hecht, co-author of Nonflict: The Art of Everyday Peacemaking (Two Harbors Press, 2016), calls it the co-creative process, where the disagreeing parties come together to find a solution that meets everyone's needs. This involves understanding each other's needs and then imagining together the best-case scenario and determining how to meet that vision. "Most people define conflict with a negative connotation, but conflict is when two different ideas come into contact with each other," Hecht said. "If you deal with conflict in a constructive way, there is opportunity."
- It encourages a deeper investigation of the issues. "Because the disagreement was expressed, a more thorough investigation will be conducted," Stack wrote. "When the group makes a decision, it will be based on additional information that probably wouldn't have been obtained had the conflict not occurred."
- It can signal unclear guidelines. When the goals or procedures are not clear, employees may conflict with each other under the honest assumption that their way is the correct one. "A major cause of workplace flare-ups is lack of role clarity," wrote Mark Schnurman in NJ.com. "Take the time upfront to clarify expectations. A brief conversation initially can save a lot of time and angst later."
- It may signal that people feel underappreciated. Sylvie Peltier, president of Red Letter Films, said that in her industry, conflict comes from people's unmet need to be heard and appreciated. She finds this especially true for people who are hired for a specific project. "If you are able to acknowledge their strengths and make them feel appreciated, they'll play nice with the rest of the team," she said.
How to keep conflict in the workplace healthy
Not all conflict is going to be good, of course, and there are times when a leader has to be a parent, said Brit Poulson, psychologist, leadership development expert and author of The Clarity Compass (Vision Creation Inc., 2017).
Take the initiative, and directly address the issue if it gets too heated among your team. "Step into the role of authority the employees need you to take," he said.
Here are a few things you can do to resolve "bad" conflicts and reduce the occurrence of unhealthy conflict in the future.
- Hire the right people. Sometimes conflict comes from personalities that don't mix. "There's not a lot you can do to change people's egos," Peltier said. "In the short term, you can only do damage control, but in the long term, don't keep those people on the team."
- Give everyone a voice. Poulson noted that while not every idea is the right one for the company to run with, even seemingly "bad" ideas can spark creativity that results in new suggestions that will work.
- Understand the parties involved. To handle conflict constructively, some thought must be given to the person's background, how they communicate and their particular approach to the problem. This framework can help you better understand and address their position. "We have different life experiences that make us who we are," Hecht added.
Examples of healthy conflict in the workplaces
Office debates are a great way to create spawn new ideas and increase the creative energy of the workplace. You don’t have to turn the office into a middle school debate club with podiums and scripted topics., but encourage discussion and creative disagreement.
Debating ideas can offer new perspectives and ways to approach a problem that may boost productivity. Just make sure it doesn’t devolve into petty arguing or turn into a fight rather than an intelligent discussion.
Competition is what drives innovation in the market, and it can be effective in the workplace as well. It encourages employees to complete tasks quicker and come up with stronger ideas.
If you have a large group working on one project, try breaking them into teams and offer incentives to whoever solves the problem first. It may breathe new life into the project and push your employees to come up with interesting solutions that they may not have considered if left to their own devices.
Disruption is a word that is thrown around a lot in Silicon Valley and the startup world, but it's an idea that can be used by any business to foster innovation.
Rather than encourage your employees to follow the status quo, push them to be disruptive. If an employee comes to you with a new idea, method or productivity system, don't shut them down immediately. Listen to their ideas and be encouraging if you think they are on to something. Leaning into change and disruption, rather than sticking to an established formula, can help your business succeed and make your employees feel more valued and integral to the company.