What Is Productive Conflict in the Workplace?

by John Estafanous in October 23rd, 2018
Why You Need Team Conflict and How to Make It Productive

Productive conflict sounds like an oxymoron, but it’s anything but that. In fact, the ability to engage in productive conflict is an important part of any working environment. Conflict is actually a necessary part of any team dynamic, because it provides the opportunity to tap into the best possible ideas, desires, and expertise to generate higher innovation and better outcomes.

That doesn’t mean that conflict is always easy or welcome, but learning how to manage it productively can mean the difference between a healthy team and a dysfunctional one.

Productive Conflict vs. Unproductive Conflict

Productive conflict refers to an open exchange throughout which different ideas and conflicts are impartially heard. Throughout the process, the parties present feel comfortable enough to voice their opinions, and they feel respectfully heard. The biggest incentive to engage in productive conflict is that it preserves relationships rather than harming them. And good relationships are critical for professional – and personal – success.  

Unproductive conflict, however, especially repetitive and frequent arguments, result in both parties feeling more frustrated. These occur when the real issue isn’t being addressed. In its place, those in disagreement raise trivial matters using provocative or argumentative communication styles. These might include either of the parties resorting to sarcasm, denial, or disrespectful language. 

Elements of Productive Conflict 

Surfacing and resolving conflict productively requires directing all discussions towards the real divisive issue. Productive conflict resolution seeks to determine the source of the conflict – to treat the root cause, not the symptoms. All parties involved in the disagreement are more concerned with finding the right answer and less with simply winning the argument. Overall, all parties walk away feeling heard and respected. 

As part of the process of productive conflict, neither party fears repercussions after speaking openly. The process is carried out in an environment of trust and reciprocity, and marked by clear and open communication. 

Overall, productive conflict depends on the ability to build trust between all parties involved. Environments that encourage self-awareness and establish norms that encourage positive and collaborative behaviors are fertile grounds for productive conflict. 

Finally, productive conflict is based on empathy, and each conflict participant assumes the others’ positive intent. All parties within the conflict recognize that they have a common interest in finding the best possible solution to the problem. 

Elements of Unproductive Conflict

Unproductive conflict is often less focused on the facts of the conflict itself. Instead, it is focused on the behaviors or communication styles of the parties involved. Unproductive conflict tends to be less focused on the substance of the issue, and those involved often attack the personalities and behaviors of the other involved parties. 

This behavior doesn’t necessarily stem from ill will or bad intentions. Often, it is simply clashing communication styles. It also doesn’t necessarily look like office shouting matches – it might instead show up as silence, back-channeling, gossip within the team, or other passive- aggressive or unprofessional behavior.

Different communication styles in a workplace can lead to some team members feeling pushed aside or increasingly frustrated. This can lead to unproductive conflict when it prevents respectful debate on the issue. Instead, unchecked emotions can take over, escalating the conflict between parties.

Leadership and Productive Conflict

A critical role for leaders involves creating the environment for productive conflict. That means creating the conditions for open communication and allowing team members to be vulnerable and take risks – specifically, creating psychological safety for your team. With this in place, team members are more likely to share their weaknesses and accept responsibility for mistakes or disagreements. When team members feel psychologically safe, it is much easier to engage in healthy, spirited debate to solve problems and land on the best solution. 

Leaders can encourage productive conflict by modeling clear and open communication and willingness to listen to different viewpoints. Aligning a team through clear communication and goals, and well-defined roles and responsibilities, helps ensure accountability across the team. Finally, consider using a management approach that focuses mainly on team results, rather than individual agendas or star performers. 

The Benefits of Healthy Conflict

Productive and healthy conflict can be valuable and productive for all parties involved, and can drive greater business success. When colleagues constructively confront each other, it means fewer insults, outbursts, or resentment between employees.  

Don't Avoid Conflict, Use It

Instead of striving to avoid conflict, leaders can focus on encouraging productive conflict. When engaging in conflict, serve as a model for the power of productive conflict by staying focused more on concepts and ideas than the people presenting them. Avoid sliding into personal-attack mode or getting overly emotional. Remember, productive conflict preserves relationships, and strong relationships fuel high-performing teams and organizations that depend on them. 

Why You Need Productive Conflict in the Workplace

Peace is good and conflict is bad, right? Not necessarily. Many people think of disagreement as exclusively negative, and go to great lengths to avoid it. But team conflict within workplace teams is actually essential to their long-term business success.

Conflict can spur better ideas, creativity, and greater innovation, which helps leading companies gain a competitive edge. When employees voice dissenting opinions, it leads to a more enriched work environment and healthy debate.

Good Team Conflict Means Productive Team Conflict

But here’s one important caveat: the conflict must be productive. At RallyBright, we view productive team conflict as having two main features. First, it focuses on producing the best possible outcome in service of the business and its stakeholders. This means it’s not about a power play, winning vs. losing, or someone’s ego. Second, it doesn’t damage relationships. Instead, it preserves relationships because it’s not personal; it’s not about the people, it’s about the problem.

So what can you do to help your team have the right amount of the right kind of conflict? Here are a few pointers.

Model a conflict-positive attitude

Work to build a mutual understanding among your colleagues that team conflict is normal and healthy for high-performance teams. Show them that it’s OK, and actually ideal, to tackle issues head-on when done so constructively. Make sure your team knows that you value spirited debate, and that disagreement (when not personal) is welcomed, by engaging with differing opinions.

Address common conflict-related problems

The two most common problems we see among teams are passive-aggressive behavior and one or two domineering personalities. If a team member displays passive-aggressive behavior, it’s wise to have a private conversation that’s friendly, yet firm. Calmly point out specific examples of the problematic behavior and how it’s detrimental to the team or work. Ask their motivations to figure out why they might be upset, then suggest solutions for how they can better deal with issues in the future, such as going to HR or having a direct conversation with the person they’re upset with. If your workplace conflict is more about working with dominating personalities, there are additional issues to address.

Productively surface team conflict through thoughtful framing

At work, people often don’t make enough effort to frame issues in a way that feels non-threatening. Failing to do so can actually deepen a conflict. Instead, surface the real issues causing the disagreement in a thoughtful way that doesn’t come off as aggressive or personal. For example, rather than saying something like, “Why are you always picking on Bill in meetings? This destructive behavior needs to stop,” try something that moves teams forward like “I’ve noticed you and Bill aren’t seeing eye to eye lately. I’d love to talk about what’s going on and how we can solve it so it doesn’t create issues in our team dynamic.”

Resolve disagreements in a way that satisfies different needs and interests

Keep in mind that not every conflict resolution strategy works for everyone. Some employees can handle being called out in front of their team if they exhibit poor conflict resolution skills, while others have negative feelings or feel humiliated. Some team members might be fine with their manager asking them to sit down with them and the person they’re having conflict with and hash it out together. Others may prefer to talk with their manager one-on-one, and then work out the conflict individually. Keep different personalities in mind to find a mutually comfortable resolution. If you’re not sure, stay solution focused and don’t hesitate to approach employees individually and find out what they’re comfortable with.

Maintain relationships between everyone involved

The long-term health of a relationship can be a casualty of conflict if you’re not mindful of it. If you deal with conflict with a colleague, make sure you make efforts to also nurture that relationship and have plenty of conflict-free interactions to help maintain a healthy relationship. This could mean making a point to compliment them from time to time, or asking them to lunch every once in a while.

While many of us have been socialized to avoid conflict at all costs, doing so can actually create more problems in the workplace. When conflict focuses on a shared business benefit and is handled in a way that doesn’t harm relationships, it can help your team become more creative, stronger at communicating, and higher-performing.

Say No to Destructive Conflict and Normalize Productive Conflict

Avoiding personal attacks and negative conflict in the workplace is crucial. Instead, focus on embracing and learning from different communication styles and building healthy relationships. Making sure parties feel equally heard is key to managing personality clashes and conflict situations. Encouraging productive conflict in the workplace is a game changer.

Do you want to learn more about personalities in the workplace and how leaders can use personality assessments to engage with team members more productively? Contact RallyBright for a demo.

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