Conflict at Work Can Be Healthy — Here’s Why Your Business Desperately Needs It

We’re often taught that conflict at work means opposing others, and opposition leads to resentments, rivalries, and unpleasant consequences.

That might be true if conflict is carried out badly, gets personal, or is based on petty office politics — motives matter.

Carried out in the right way, in a discussion surrounding ideas, engaging in a conflict in the workplace can be unbelievably valuable to the team’s progress and, ultimately, to its outcomes.

Conflict at work can turn coworkers against each other if not handled properly, as with the two men pictured, working but facing away from each other, not collaborating.

Conflict Around Ideas — Let’s Define Terms

This is the second of The Five Behaviors of a Cohesive Team™, the first being vulnerability-based trust.

Members of teams who trust one another at work are not afraid to engage in conflict around ideas that are key to the organization’s success. They do not hesitate to disagree with, challenge, and question each other, all in the spirit of finding the best answers, discovering the truth, and making great decisions.

Conflict is the process through which good ideas and possibilities are validated and elaborated (and inferior options are weeded out).

There must be frank and open discussion for a team to determine the best goals to set, the best paths to success.

The Consequences of Conflict at Work

It’s necessary to look at how people usually feel about conflict to understand why we struggle to view conflict in a positive light.

It’s a loaded word that usually carries a negative connotation — someone mentions conflict, and people wince. They’re immediately conjuring up images and feelings associated with unhealthy conflict, which may include the follow concepts and actions:

  • Personal attacks
  • Name calling
  • Disrespect
  • Deceit
  • Lies
  • Distortions
  • Isolation
  • Anger
  • Jealousy
  • Bitterness

Anyone can expand the list ad infinitum. Most of us have experienced this type of dysfunctional organizational culture at one point or another in our careers.

Unhealthy conflicts are cancers that develop into destructive behaviors, like:

  • Battles over prestige and credit
  • Turf wars
  • Questioning the honesty or motives of others
  • Resentment
  • Grudges
  • Sabotage
  • Intentional failure to communicate
  • Character assassination
  • Gossip

Here are some examples of what employees might say about their workplace when they’re in a toxic environment filled with unhealthy conflict:

  • “You have to be careful about what you say to some people”
  • “People play favorites around here”
  • “Whatever we decide, office politics determines what we actually do”
  • “Bringing up ideas puts a target on your back”

It’s safe to say that motivation, creativity, and collaboration aren’t abundant in an environment such as this. These feelings, and the resulting behaviors, distract a team from the task at hand and hinder their ability to deliver their collective best.

The Dangers of “Holding Back”

The worst situations occur when needed expression of ideas and opinions is avoided out of fear of unhealthy conflict — this is the most unhealthy situation possible as it stifles innovation and risk-taking necessary for businesses to become great.

By avoiding conflict, a team pushes its differences deep below the surface where they will fester, only to resurface in new and often more severe forms — an infection often far more destructive than the actual difference of opinion that could have been constructively hashed out in the first place.

The other likely outcome from avoiding conflict is that people fail to contribute potentially innovative ideas for fear that they may have to go through those horrible feelings they associate with unhealthy conflict.

While that’s certainly understandable, a team then finds itself stuck in an artificial harmony. Stagnation and status quo consistently lead to results that are far below the team’s collective capabilities.

The Wrong Question Regarding Conflict at Work

A question that’s often asked by those unfamiliar with the freedom and benefits of healthy conflict is this: “How do I reduce conflict in the workplace?

Answering a question with another question is usually bad form, but we’re inclined to respond by asking, “Are you sure you want to reduce conflict in the workplace?

A lack of conflict could be costing your organization dearly.

If you develop the craft of healthy conflict, you’ll want more, not less, because you’ll see just how powerful an effect healthy conflict can have on outcomes.

The Right Question to Ask About Conflict at Work

That leads to the obvious question: What do I do to make conflict at work positive and productive?

Conflict is energy created by tension between the current situation and the desired outcome. It’s born from strong emotions like passion, motivation, need, and belief. The challenge for both the leaders and the team members is to leverage this tension into a lively, open discussion of the ideas at hand.

Team members need to feel empowered and comfortable enough with each other to voice their opinions, even at the risk of causing disagreement. You’ve got to have a foundation of trust.

Conflict can be emotional process, and as a team, you need to decide how you’re going to approach it.

It’s Not Actually About Conflict Resolution

When we talk about “conflict” at work, the word that usually comes to mind next is “resolution.”

To many, that can mean safe and unproductive harmony, resigning themselves to blunted compromise, and feeling unfulfilled.

If your conflicts are focused on ideas and grounded in vulnerability-based trust, you can achieve so much more than you might otherwise. A simple resolution to a conflict, one that restores the status quo, rarely leads to innovation or big wins.

Passionate teams want answers and innovation. They want alternatives and are willing to take risks and look at ideas they wouldn’t normally even consider.

Strong organizations want ideas. They want to move toward an answer or a solution — they need a decision that they can invest themselves in.

It’s important to keep that destination in mind, leading, of course, into the next behavior in the pyramid of 5 Behaviors of an Effective Team — Commit to Decisions.

Healthy Conflict at Work Moves a Team Toward Decisions

Conflict is about a focused and productive exchange of diverse ideas and opinions sandwiched between a foundation of trust and a shared understanding that the primary goal is reaching a decision everyone can commit to.

When this situation describes your team dynamics, everyone is able to engage freely and passionately in the spirited debate of issues and concerns important to the team.

The team moves fairly quickly past the initial sparks and tension and on to collaboration, deciding together what to do and becoming more invested as the team cooperates to reach a solution that promises to deliver more than the status quo.

Members are confident that all opinions and ideas are put on the table and considered, knowing that no stone has been left unturned.

Leaders need everybody on board to get the results the team decided to pursue. It absolutely requires hashing out differences to get the team on the same page.

We suggest a frank discussion to establish the rules for debate in meetings and side conversations. Be sure everybody is included in the back and forth, putting their unrestrained best ideas, opinions, and concerns onto the table. You may need to remind everyone from time to time that conflict born of tension is inevitable, productive, and necessary.

Learn How Personality Styles Affect Conflict in the Workplace

It’s important for leaders to understand how differences in personalities and work styles influence conflict — it’s helpful for team members, too.

People are brought onto a team for a variety of reasons. Their personalities and work styles are likely to be at odds in certain situations and around certain ideas. This can be an asset if team leaders know how to leverage these differences and minimize personality clashes.

These differences need to be funneled into the productive conflict around ideas we’ve been discussing.

To learn more about how understanding personalities can help you use conflict at work to obtain better results, click the link to watch our short video.

Watch the Video


Brett Cooper

Brett is the visionary President of Integris Performance Advisors, a professional development firm he co-founded to expand the existence of healthy organizations and great places to work. By creatively bringing together concepts from The Five Dysfunctions of a Team (by Patrick Lencioni), The Leadership Challenge (by Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner), and Lean Six Sigma, Brett and his team have influenced thousands of people in government, non-profits and corporate America to work together in more productive, more effective and more human ways. Outside of his role at Integris, Brett dedicates time to serving others in need. He is a volunteer coordinator for the East Bay Stand Down and Stand Down on the Delta, two non-profits serving the needs of San Francisco’s homeless Veteran population. He is also board member and financial sponsor for Partners in Sustainable Learning, whose mission is to bring early childhood education to marginalized communities in the developing world (current projects are underway in Nepal).