Disagreeing doesn't have to be counterproductive. Learn how productive conflict can strengthen the relationship in the workplace.
Workplace conflict can be a source of deep frustration and exhaustion. Negativity can be so intoxicating that we just hate to show up to the office. No wonder we often prefer to pretend an issue doesn’t exist, hiding our heads in the sand.
But it does exist, and needs to be solved.
The good news is that conflicts do not have to be ruinous. On the contrary – they can be a powerful tool for building healthy relationships and generating brilliant ideas. With the right approach, you can develop a productive conflict that would bring your team, and then your company, to a new level.
The most positive thing leadership can do for their organization is to embrace conflict and harness its power as a creative force for productivity and innovation. - Mark Batson Baril
The term “productive conflict” may sound self-contradictory. After all, the word “conflict” suggests a clash of ideas, and this often means fighting. Fights, of course, are rather destructive. But productive conflicts are not about destruction.
Productive conflict is an open exchange of different or opposed ideas. In such a conflict, the parties seek to find a solution that would satisfy everyone involved, feeling respected and safe to express themselves.
A constructive conflict may provoke fresh thoughts and unveil opportunities that otherwise would not be noticed. The combination of different ideas and knowledge possessed by multiple people helps us see a subject from a new perspective.
The value of productive conflict is that it’s a healthy way of problem-solving. It gives you a chance to express your own vision without the fear of rejection. And speaking up is more important than you may think.
The culture of productive conflict creates conditions for psychological safety to thrive – because when people are not scared, they will raise their concerns. This way, a conflict may become an effective means of communication in a team, strengthening relationships between team members. It can boost productivity and performance, as well as increase innovation.
In a productive conflict, the parties involved solve problems disagreeing with one another and feeling comfortable doing so. This type of conflict builds trust and encourages collaboration in a team. The participants realize the argument is about finding answers, not about demonstrating intelligence or power.
Patrick Lencioni, author of books on business management, “The 5 Dysfunctions of a Team” in particular, provides the following characteristics of productive conflict:
What about unproductive conflict?
Unproductive conflict is the opposite of what we’ve just described. It’s an argument without a resolution which leaves the parties frustrated. In a destructive conflict, people get distracted from the real issue, repeating the same things and going in circles till they start attacking personalities of each other.
It is not healthy, and it doesn’t lead to any good outcomes. Unproductive conflict creates competition and ruins relationships.
Here we need to mention one important thing. In the work environment (and, basically, in any other environment) the opposite of conflict is not the absence of it. A conflict-free business environment is a utopia – it’s impossible to fully eliminate conflict.
Even more, the lack of confrontation is a red flag signaling that something is going wrong with the team dynamics. Most probably, it simply means the conflict is latent – suppressed and about to explode. It’s like an elephant in the room.
In his model of teamwork, Patrick Lencioni’s calls the fear of conflict the second dysfunction of a team, dysfunction meaning a factor negatively influencing group dynamics. He explains that when people avoid conflict, they create tension – and instead of looking for a solution, they turn to personal attacks. According to him, the lack of conflict means:
Contrary to the notion that teams waste time and energy arguing, those that avoid conflict actually doom themselves to revisiting issues again and again without resolution. - Patrick Lencioni
There are signs which show a dialogue is moving in the wrong direction, and you’d rather do something not to let it get out of control. Here are some of them:
Destructive conflict at work is rarely the result of bad intentions. It usually happens because people are used to a certain way of discussing problems. Yet, this can be changed.
There are several things that make for a productive conflict:
Productive conflict is not an argument for the sake of argument. It has a purpose – to solve an issue. The team remains focused on finding a solution – or rather, the best solution. In other words, people are ready to quit their own ideas if they see the ideas of others are better.
The focus on solutions also means teamwork. A discussion will not be productive if everyone who will be impacted by its result does not have a say. Firstly, it will lack important detail, which could be contributed by specialists. Secondly, people who didn’t get a chance to express themselves will probably feel resentment and won’t genuinely buy in.
This is why it’s important to set ground rules that would not just let, but actually require the parties involved to say something.
In their book “Crucial Conversations”, K. Peterson et al. explain that for a dialogue to be healthy, it must happen in a safe environment. When a conversation is overly emotional or controversial, it’s important for the parties to feel safe. The authors mention two conditions that create safety – mutual purpose and mutual respect:
We often do not hear each other in a conversation. Sometimes we can get so deep in the desire to prove our point that we stop hearing what the other person is trying to say. No wonder we start to raise our voices.
Or we simply let someone talk, not interrupting, yet not reacting at all to what is being said. This is passive listening, and it’s not productive either.
What we need is active listening. It’s the ability to focus on the speaker and understand the message, conveying interest and engagement. Active listening is an important communication skill – when people feel listened to, they will share more information.
The authors Robin Abrahams and Boris Groysberg underline that even minor improvements in your listening skills can make a big difference, and suggest using the following techniques:
Being human in a workplace does not mean you will be less professional. On the contrary – by practicing empathy, we create a healthier work culture and a more enriched work environment.
Empathy lets us realize we’re all unique, and have a right to different opinions. Thanks to it, we can be flexible and ready to understand different viewpoints. It helps collaborate with people with different communication styles and avoid personality clashes, as well as develop self-awareness.
Empathy makes you the learner, not the knower. This lets you admit your option may not be the best one, and be open to looking for better solutions.
One of the signature mistakes with empathy is that we believe we can take our lenses off and look through the lenses of someone else. We can’t… What we can do, however, is honor people’s perspectives as truth even when they’re different from ours. - Brene Brown, “Dare to Lead”
A conflict cannot be productive without an open and honest expression of opinions. Without transparency, it’s hard to reach a point where all participants of a discussion will be satisfied. Sometimes, being honest requires courage.
Kim Scott, the author of “Radical Candor,” explains that candor appears as the result of personal care and direct challenge you demonstrate in communication.
Caring personally, you don’t pretend your negative feelings or words don’t hurt another person – you acknowledge their pain. Challenging directly, you admit things aren’t going well. It involves disagreeing and saying no.
As we can see, this approach means embracing the conflict rather than avoiding it. Being candid is not comfortable. You will have to say the truth, and the truth is not always sweet. Besides, candor works the other way around – you let yourself be honest, but you’re also ready for them to be honest with you.
However, candor lays the foundation for building trust. And trust is an extremely important element of a productive team. An environment where trust is not present is doomed – instead of focusing on work results, people will focus on dealing with intrigues. It doesn’t have a positive impact on productivity.
There are several reasons why productive conflict is beneficial for a workplace, and why it improves the well-being of a team:
Psychological safety is not the absence of conflict or making an effort to reduce it. It is the ability to constructively handle conflict in an interpersonally safe way. It doesn’t mean team members need to be nice to each other all the time – rather, it means they won’t be punished for suggesting different ideas and taking risks.
Open dialogue and constructive debates are the main conditions for creating psychological safety, which is essential for team health. Even more – according to Amy Edmondson, the Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at the Harvard Business School, when people hesitate to express their opinion or point out someone’s mistake at work, the consequences may be horrible, even disastrous.
Knowledgeable, skilled, well-meaning people cannot always contribute what they know at that critical moment on the job when it is needed. Sometimes this is because they fail to recognize the need for their knowledge. More often, it’s because they’re reluctant to stand out, be wrong, or offend the boss. - Amy Edmondson
In a psychologically safe environment, it’s fine to ask tough questions. It’s fine to raise concerns when something doesn’t work the way it was intended. You can disagree and question the rules and orders. You can create more conflict, cause spirited debate, express strong emotions, and suggest new ideas - and it will be considered a healthy part of the work process.
Productive conflict means an opportunity to learn from each other. Each team member has a unique experience to share – not in a form of a lecture or advice, but through providing valid arguments in a conversation.
In their 2006 article “Too Hot to Handle: How to Manage Relationship Conflict,” Amy Edmondson and Diana McLain Smith mention that productive conflict accelerates learning in teams. Disagreeing with each other, we can examine competing views and even find out why our opponent thinks in a particular way. We may learn about alternative solutions which worked before. And we may also hear that something we considered effective didn’t work once, and learn from the mistakes.
This has a positive effect on both individual and organizational learning, and makes it easier to solve cross-functional problems.
To stay competitive in the market, you need to be adaptive and react to changes. This is impossible without breaking old habits, moving forward, thinking differently, and trying something new. A conflict can be a good instrument for encouraging creative thinking – you can challenge opinions and suggest innovative solutions.
Without conflict, you cannot progress. Innovation depends on the diversity of ideas – and it most probably will lead to a conflict, because people will advocate for their ideas. Unconventional thinkers often meet resistance, but it’s often people who think differently who make changes possible. These people need a right to self-expression.
Healthy conflict can increase the company’s profitability and create a positive reputation. An organization that enables people to freely engage in debates and know their opinions are valued will easily attract new talent and retain the best team members.
Respect for every individual and recognition of their unique knowledge and experience creates employee satisfaction and motivates team members to produce better results. Better performance and commitment, in turn, lead to higher profits.
This way, constructive conflict plants the seeds of a successful future for a company.
Conflict is not good or bad, or something we can guard against like the flu. Conflict is a natural part of human behavior… Yet most leaders are busy looking for ways to avoid conflict, not invite it. - Mark Batson Baril
So how can you build a culture of constructive conflict in your organization? Mark Batson Baril, the executive director of the Neighborhood Mediation Center in Reno, suggests three steps to approach conflict in a way that would help mitigate potentially dangerous situations and improve the performance of teams:
A leader sets the tone for the whole organization, so it makes sense to start implementing a new culture from the top. As a leader, you should normalize the presence of conflict. Encourage and remind employees to participate in debates. Look for opportunities to use conflict as a decision-making power. Develop transparency and trust within a team for people to feel safe.
Educate your team on the power of productive conflict. Explain the benefits of it. Hold a meeting where you’ll establish the rules of healthy conflict and set expectations. Let people figure out how exactly they plan to deal with conflict situations. Let them answer the following questions:
Provide conflict-resolution training for your teams. Don’t forget about diversity, discrimination, and sexual harassment policies – they form the basis for respect within an organization.
In addition to these steps, the authors Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen recommend addressing conflicts at a workplace based on the type of conversation that triggered a conflict. Each of them will need a different approach:
Of course, productive conflict is still a conflict – and it might take some time for people to accept it as an effective method of decision-making and problem resolution. But such a conflict has nothing to do with demeaning others or verbal violence. It’s a platform for a safe discussion where everyone’s opinion is heard, and great answers can be found.
A team that knows how to dig deep and persevere is more likely to succeed. But this vital team resilience is a skill that has to be developed over time.
Do you want to facilitate a more productive work culture? See how your team matches up against these seven team effectiveness models.