Fighting the good fight: when workplace conflict works

Fighting the good fight: when workplace conflict works

Phoebe Vaughan
February 26, 2017

We have all witnessed flaring tempers at one time or another and as troubling as raw aggression can be, it is important to separate it conceptually from productive conflict. Depending on culture and upbringing, many of us grew up learning that conflict is always destructive and should be avoided. But as with most moral truisms, the reality may not be so black and white. Managers need to understand the advantages of constructive conflict so that they can actively nurture it within their teams. In fact, some experts argue that collaboration cannot happen without conflict.

Differences of opinion are bound to surface in any workplace and learning how to channel those differences into productive dialogue is an essential leadership skill. Not only does healthy debate diffuse the toxic conflict that develops when no forum exists for resolving disagreements, but it helps unlock innovation and encourages critical thinking, all of which leads to better business decisions. In order for leaders to nurture a culture that authentically embraces healthy conflict, they must build some scaffolding to help people feel safe sharing their ideas and be able to build consensus after the dust settles.

Putting Healthy Conflict in Practice

Make healthy conflict a core value. Former Harvard Business School professor Michael Roberto outlines the many benefits of creating a culture that embraces healthy conflict in his book, Why Great Leaders Don’t Take Yes for an Answer. In it, he argues that passive leadership creates complacency and discourages the open exchange of divergent ideas, and that managers can nurture healthy conflict by encouraging vigorous respectful debate. To counteract the negative associations many people have with conflict, start by talking about the value of conflict with your teams. Define it, explain the benefits, and make it safe to disagree. Perhaps most important of all, model it. This means not only playing devil’s advocate in conversations with your team, but also remaining open and receptive when challenged in private or public forums. This is more important than ever during periods of major organizational change when people may have the most fiercely held views on how to proceed. Helping people vent and incorporating bottoms-up feedback is a powerful way to foster buy in during and after transitions.

Make people feel safe. In order for everyone at the table to feel safe sharing their ideas, managers must set ground rules for respectful debate. This involves modeling and enforcing some criteria for respectful dialogue:

  • Sharing the floor — This means spending as much (or more) time listening than talking in meetings, avoiding interrupting, and for managers this means actively probing for feedback from the people who have remained quiet. Some people may feel safer sharing feedback in private (via email or one-on-one), so provide multiple channels for gathering input.
  • Respectfully disagreeing — Even when emotions are running high, avoid profanity, labels, or other language that is divisive. To be productive, the focus of debate must remain on the problem, not the people. Martina Welke is a former family court mediator who notes that being able to imagine the values of those we disagree with is a pillar of successful conflict resolution. This exercise in empathy helps humanize those we disagree with and takes us out of the “I’m right, you’re wrong” mode of argument, which never leads to a harmonious resolution.
  • Understanding power dynamics — It is also important to be mindful of the various factors that keep some people from speaking up. New hires, junior employees, subordinates, or people who may feel like outsiders (based on race, age, gender, or other cultural differences) may need extra encouragement to speak freely. It is incumbent upon managers to foster an environment where everyone feels valued, safe, and invited to open up without fear of repercussions.

Provide decision-making transparency. A natural outcome of vigorous debate is a decision about how to move forward, and there will be winners and losers. Transparent communication is key to securing buy in and collaboration from all parties in the wake of a controversial decision. This means acknowledging the divergent viewpoints, outlining the rationale for decisions in order to build understanding and support, and finding ways to keep those who have “lost” engaged. Keeping lines of communication open and encouraging ongoing, fluid feedback about what is going well and what needs to be fixed is a powerful way to ensure everyone feels that they have a voice, win or lose.

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