The world is rife with conflict, whether from war or just an everyday Facebook fight, so it may seem wise to try to remove conflict from our places of employment. However, while eliminating conflict may make for a more peaceful workplace, doing so can hurt a business’s growth. Conflict is a natural occurrence, and there are ways it can be a positive experience for you and your employees.
What is workplace conflict?
Workplace conflict refers to any disagreement or tension among employees of an organization. It is common, since the vast array of people working for a business bring unique thoughts, backgrounds, communication styles and personal perspectives into the workplace. Inevitably, some of these elements will be in opposition and cause conflict among the group. But this conflict isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
What is beneficial about healthy forms of workplace conflict?
While the word “conflict” typically has a negative connotation, there are times when disagreements in the workplace are actually quite healthy and advantageous. Here’s why a business may want to embrace certain workplace conflicts.
- It fosters creativity. Stephen Hecht, co-author of Nonflict: The Art of Everyday Peacemaking, calls conflict a co-creative process in which the disagreeing parties come together to find a solution that meets everyone’s needs. This involves understanding each other’s perspectives, 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. When a disagreement is shared among team members, it invites a closer look at the problem and the different viewpoints that contribute to the conflict. That more thorough examination is likely to reveal relevant new information that can change the situation for the better.
- It can alert you to a need for better guidelines. When goals or processes are unclear, employees may conflict with each other under the honest assumption that their way is the correct one. This lack of clarity can cause duplicate or incorrect work, but the confusion can also spark positive changes. Clarifying your expectations and preferred procedures can help your team understand exactly what they should be doing and how they can work alongside their colleagues harmoniously.
- It may show workers’ commitment and passion. Sylvie Peltier, president of Red Letter Films, said that in her industry, conflict often comes from people’s unmet need to be heard and appreciated. She finds this to be 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. When you recognize a conflict as a result of your team members’ commitment to your company and passion for the project, you may want to reward them for their hard work and fuel their motivation. [Read related article: Why Employees Value Appreciation Over Bonuses]
What are examples of healthy conflict in the workplace?
A company will have a harder time succeeding if it’s plagued by absenteeism, low engagement and other conflict-driven culture issues. But there are types of healthy conflict that you should embrace within reason, including the examples below.
Office debates are a great way to generate new ideas and spur your team’s creativity. And they don’t mean you have to turn the workplace into a middle school debate club with podiums and scripted topics. Instead, encourage discussion and reasonable disagreement supported by facts.
Debating ideas can lead to new perspectives and ways to approach a problem that boost productivity. Just make sure the conversation doesn’t devolve into petty arguments or turn into a cruel fight rather than an intelligent back-and-forth.
Competition between businesses is what drives innovation in the marketplace, and it can be effective within a company as well. Friendly workplace competition can encourage 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 smaller teams and offer incentives to whichever team solves the problem first. This challenge may breathe new life into the project and push your employees to come up with interesting solutions they would not have considered if left to their own devices.
Disruption is a word that’s thrown around a lot in Silicon Valley and the startup world, but it’s a concept that can be used by any business to foster both modernization and belonging. Leaning into change, instead of sticking to an established formula, can help your organization succeed and make your employees feel more valued and integral to the company.
Rather than letting workers stick with the status quo, push them to be disruptive and develop better ways of doing things in your business and the industry at large. If a staff member comes to you with a new idea, method or system, don’t shut them down immediately. Listen to your employees and be supportive if you think they’re on to something.
Facilitating an inclusive workplace culture, where diversity and belonging are promoted, is a critical part of providing a healthy work environment.
How do you keep conflict in the workplace healthy?
Not all conflict is going to be good, and there are times when a leader has to be more like an office parent, said Brit Poulson, psychologist, leadership development expert and author of The Clarity Compass. Take 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 toxic disputes and reduce the occurrence of unhealthy conflict in the future:
- Hire and retain 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.” [Learn how to hire for cultural fit.]
- Give everyone a voice. Poulson noted that while not every idea is the right one for a company to run with, even seemingly bad ideas can spark creativity that results in new suggestions that will work. Plus, if you give everyone a chance to be heard, you’ll avoid triggering resentment.
- Understand the parties involved. To handle conflict constructively, give some thought 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 said. When you take those into consideration, you can meet your staffers where they are and facilitate a positive working environment.
Be intentional about how you handle workplace conflict. Give employees the chance to share their concerns, and step in when necessary so issues don’t linger.
What are signs of unhealthy workplace conflict?
While workplace conflict can be healthy, it can also quickly become the opposite. Below are some signs of unhealthy workplace conflict and how you can redirect it into opportunities for growth.
- Decreasing productivity: A lack of communication and collaboration among employees can quickly result in lower productivity rates. An employee might take longer to complete a task if a colleague withholds relevant information from them or refuses to offer help. They may also be suffering from a lack of motivation. If you’ve recently noticed a downward trend in productivity, conflict among your employees could be the culprit. Check out these tips for successful teamwork.
- Declining engagement: A team member might stop attending or participating in work-related events to avoid certain colleagues. You might observe they refrain from communicating with some people entirely. If your team’s cohesion seems to be declining, conflict with colleagues might be to blame. Focus on practicing better team building, but also try to engage the affected people individually to address the root of the issue.
- Lack of respect: A staffer might tell you they don’t trust a particular co-worker to complete a task. You might also hear them use disrespectful language toward a colleague. Holding the staffer accountable for their disrespect or digging into why they don’t want to work with so-and-so can point you in the direction of the source of the conflict and enlighten you on how to resolve it.
- High absenteeism: An employee might avoid coming to work if their day involves seeing or interacting with someone with whom they are in conflict. They might call out of work more often than usual and say they’re sick or give no explanation at all for their absence. While there can be several reasons why an employee needs to take a day off work, you might want to inquire further and see how you can fix the issue. That’s especially true if other signs of workplace conflict are also present.
- Off-track meetings: Unhealthy conflict among attendees can be a surefire way to consistently push meetings off track. If your meeting discussions seem to focus more on issues among employees than business-related topics, you clearly have workplace conflicts that need handling. Frequent arguments, circular discussions and a lack of productive dialogue can easily detract from meetings. Try using these effective words in your next business meeting to keep things on track.
If you notice any of the above signs are present in your workplace, rest assured you can turn them into healthy opportunities for team growth. Take some time to speak with your employees individually and together. Be open with them about anything you’ve noticed that seems unhealthy. Give them room to share their thoughts and feelings. Try holding problem-solving discussions where you can listen and offer solutions that will support and encourage everyone within your company to work together well.
Signs of unhealthy workplace conflict can appear in many ways. If you can readily identify toxic issues, that can help you find productive, timely solutions to these problems so morale – and the business as a whole – doesn’t suffer.
Setting a positive example
Finding ways to manage healthy conflict in your workplace can also mean discovering areas for improvement. Channel disagreements into opportunities for meaningful change within your organization. Be sure you’re leading your team by example and helping them maneuver conflict constructively. If you foster a culture that embraces healthy conflict and quickly resolves unhealthy conflict, you’ll promote a positive and productive work environment for both you and your employees.
Karina Fabian contributed to the writing and reporting in this article. Source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.