French essayist and moralist Joseph Joubert once wrote: “The aim of argument and of discussion should not be victory but progress.”
Conflicts will always be part of the workplace. The good news is that conflict plays a crucial role in building and maintaining a healthy work environment. Disagreements can drive creativity, generate effective strategies for completing tasks, and encourage ownership of products and ideas.
“The difference between conflict in a dysfunctional company and in a high-trust organization is how people deal with it,” writes Joel Peterson, Chairman of JetBlue Airways and professor at Stanford GSB.
Managing conflicts is one of a manager’s most important responsibilities. In this post, we'll cover why conflicts occur, when to step in, and how to promote positive conflict and healthy disagreement.
Understand Why People Fight at Work
Managers who want to properly manage conflict need to understand why it happens. In general, workplace conflicts occur when the values or goals of one party clash with those of another party, according to a 2008 study in the Journal of Organizational Behavior.
More specifically, workplace conflicts can involve:
Unclear responsibilities: If it’s not clear who is responsible for completing which task, arguments can ensue.
Status: When employees are competing for a promotion or a raise, things can get ugly.
Favoritism: Whether real or perceived, favoritism can manufacture tension or fracture relationships.
Personality differences: Some people’s leadership or work styles just don’t mesh well without special effort.
Values: An employee’s value system might make him hesitate to, for example, promote a certain product or write about a certain topic.
Creative differences: Especially in a very creative environment like a web development company or an advertising agency, people will have very different opinions about how projects should be completed. Depending on how it's handled, this can lead to personal bickering or help generate better ideas.
High stress levels: Sometimes stress brings out the worst in us and promotes conflict.
Intervene When Necessary
As a manager, you don’t have to be involved in every conflict. You will have to learn in which cases direct reports should be left alone to sort out their differences.
If the problem is recurring and seems to affect the well-being of your whole team, take action. Be aware that poorly handled workplace conflict (or conflict that’s not managed at all) can have a detrimental effect on both the company and the health of your individual employees. Negative conflict has been linked to burnout, depression and poor general health. Stay aware of what’s going on in your office.
If you decide to intervene, first consider the personalities of the involved parties. Are they conflict seekers or conflict avoiders? Seekers tend to advocate for themselves, face conflict head-on, and act impatient. Avoiders tend to value harmony above all else, placate the opposing party instead of finding a lasting solution, and change the subject to, well, avoid the conflict. Talk with each individual involved in the conflict and remind them of the expectations of professional behavior.
Conflict seekers tend to advocate for themselves, face conflict head-on, and act impatient
Conflict avoiders tend to value harmony above all else, placate the opposing party instead of finding a lasting solution
Conflicts highlight important issues that may have otherwise remained hidden. Approach the conversation as a chance to improve how something is done or teach your employees something new. Find out what went wrong and establish clear steps for making sure it doesn’t happen again.
“Hidden within virtually every conflict is the potential for a tremendous teaching/learning opportunity,” Mike Myatt Chairman of N2Growth writes.
Encourage Positive Conflict
You read that correctly: encourage positive conflict. As writer and political commentator Walter Lippmann wrote, “Where all think alike, no one thinks very much.” You should always encourage your employees to freely voice suggestions and opinions, unless, of course, nothing about your office or workflow needs improvement.
“Deviating opinions are not only an ‘acceptable’ but also . . . form an inherent part of the problem-solving process,” according to a 2012 study published in the Journal of Pragmatics.
To foster an environment where employees can engage in positive conflict:
- Ensure people feel comfortable to share new ideas without judgment. Thank your employees for making suggestions even when they aren’t implemented.
- Teach employees to speak directly to the person with whom they are in conflict instead of behind his or her back to resolve any disagreements.
- Model ideal behavior by asking questions, listening and showing empathy.
- Call out unprofessional behavior early and often - intentionally cruel or mean behavior can’t be accepted or tolerated.
- Reframe all problems - teach employees to focus on shared business goals, rather than focusing on being right or winning the conflict.
Remember that disagreement—not fighting— is beneficial at work and critical to your company’s success. With experience, you’ll learn when you need to intervene to curb resentment and unproductive energy. And if you can create an environment where everyone feels free to share conflicting opinions in a healthy, positive way, you’ll have happier employees eager to innovate and challenge the status quo.