Whether you were part of an argument or watched a battle unfold from the sidelines, you’ve likely felt the discomfort of unproductive workplace conflict. Conflict activates our fight, flight, or freeze mechanism and causes strong physical, emotional, and mental reactions: anxiety, uncertainty, clammy skin, even shaking. Our gut reaction is to avoid it because we view it as a bad thing.
However, not all conflict is the same. When done right, it can build energy, create stronger teams, and drive better innovation and outcomes. It can also stimulate growth amongst a team and encourage employees to view unfamiliar situations with an open mind. But if conflict is so beneficial, why do people have such a hard time accepting it?
The problem many teams face is that they aren’t equipped with the skills or knowledge to “do conflict” in a way that works. They may be afraid to offend their team members or put themselves in a vulnerable position. If they’ve had a negative previous experience with workplace conflict, they tend to avoid it completely. The problem isn’t necessarily the conflict itself, but the consequences that arise from it.
Some of the best and most rewarding work comes from intense debate about the right path forward. A colleague and I once debated about the design of a software product for two sets of stakeholders. We were having a whiteboard session, trying to finalize a certain set of requirements. As we debated back and forth—and I mean truly debated—another colleague in the room began to move farther and farther away from us until their back was literally against the wall in the opposite corner of the room
When we stopped for a break, a few individuals came up to ask if everything was OK between us. We both told them we were fine because we knew the debate—as vigorous and heated as it was—was about the outcome for the stakeholders we represented, and not about our personal opinions. We respect one another, but our views on the best path forward in this scenario differed. I already knew that this kind of debate was not viewed as the norm, it was the first time I actually felt it.
The real solution to workplace conflict? First, acknowledge that it happens. Then, frame conflict with a shared mental model that can benefit the team, and cultivate robust discussion through implementing norms and practices. Teach your team how to have conflict without making it personal—conflict should always be about ideas and behaviors, and not about individuals. Finally, celebrate when teams do it well.
One of the most beneficial things about workplace conflict is that, when done right, it builds trust. Engaging in productive conflict teaches you to better understand one another and listen carefully. It builds a culture of respect and acceptance for people and the debate itself, creating psychological safety. Psychological safety is the belief that one is able to share their thoughts and opinions without negative consequence. This allows team members to take the kinds of risks that might just lead to breakthrough.
Conflict will happen. You shouldn’t avoid, deny, or delay it. What you can do is acknowledge it and determine where to go from there. It’s what we do with it that matters. Encourage those involved to address the conflict between themselves if possible. If not, bring them together to have a discussion on how to appropriately address the situation.
Here’s how you can address conflict:
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