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Workplace Conflict is Inevitable...But it Doesn't Have to Be Painful

Nov 16, 2021

When I say the word conflict, what is it that comes to mind?  When I ask this question in a workshop, the answers range from grunts and eye rolling to descriptions like difficult, frustrating, struggle, dispute, controversy, opposition, even politics!  Rarely do I hear any positive descriptions, yet conflict done well in an organization can be not only very healthy, but very helpful, and even necessary, as well.

When it comes to problem-solving, it is our differences of experience, insight and perspective that make us stronger and more effective.  The very essence of healthy conflict is what allows us to innovate and grow.

What do you do in your organization to encourage healthy disagreement, and helpful debate about important issues?  Do your people appreciate conflict - or do they avoid it at all costs?  How effective are your leaders at facilitating healthy, constructive conflict?

Often, in organizations where people tend to be conflict-averse, there are underlying reasons.  Here are five I encounter most often:

  1. Leaders set the example - and the tone - by failing to confront important issues, whether they are personal or organizational in nature. For example, allowing poor behavior or poor performance to slide; not speaking up or speaking out about inequities or common frustrations.
  2. When people ask sensitive questions or raise unpopular topics, they are discouraged or even penalized in overt or subtle ways. We learn quickly that, in a given environment, it is not safe to rock the boat.
  3. There is a lack of trust among members of the organization. Often, it starts right at the top and carries through the levels and between departments, creating silos.  It is interesting how people in one group will maintain the distance and animosity toward another group that they see and learn from their manager.
  4. The underlying culture of the organization encourages autonomy or outright competition among groups. People neither ask for nor offer help to each other. Self-reliance is valued beyond teamwork, so everyone is focused on their individual goals rather than those of the team and organization.
  5. With a mix of work situations - working from home, in the office, or a mix of both- resentments have surfaced and escalated over time. People can grow frustrated with the disparity in levels of flexibility that they see and experience. When collaborating with people who are here, there and everywhere, it can be difficult to get a handle on the "flow" of things and build momentum in the right direction.

Even with the best of intentions, it is often difficult to pick up on the subtle undercurrents that exist between people, especially when they are not in the room together.  It is easier to assume that things are going smoothly, or even to pretend that they are, hoping that they will improve.

Often, it takes a significant blow up to realize that the situation has got out of control.  And then, it's often too late to repair the damage in the relationship, to the project, or within the team.

The best leaders are proactive in ensuring that their team is interacting and collaborating effectively, that differences are openly discussed, and that competing points of view are expressed.  In other words, they encourage healthy conflict.  Finding that fine line between health and unhealthy conflict is part of the art of leadership. And not everyone has the skill to enable constructive disagreement.  But like other leadership skills, this can be learned.

The extended benefit of facilitating healthy conflict is to achieve a high degree of commitment for the path forward.  When people have an opportunity to be heard, they are more likely to support the final decision, even if they don't fully agree.  And in any organization, achieving that kind of alignment around priorities is critical. 

Research shows that mangers spend up to 40% of their time managing conflict among members of the team.  That's a full two days out of five.  Additionally, we know from the work done by the Center for Creative Leadership, that  "problems with interpersonal relationships" is the number one issue that stalls a career in leadership.  And, when I work with Human Resource professionals, they identify interpersonal conflict as the number one contributor to the employee relations issues they deal with consistently.

So, what about your organization?  Imagine having a culture where healthy conflict exists, and leaders understand how to facilitate and listen effectively. In this era of the Great Resignation, it’s increasingly important to focus on your culture, understanding that coffee bars, social events, ping pong tables and more might be fun perks, but they aren’t culture.

There is a highly executable framework for creating more innovation, progress and positive culture in your organization, while eliminating the friction and roadblocks that cause most companies to remain stuck. Let’s explore how this may benefit your organization and expand the cohesiveness of your team.

I can be reached at 201-400-9225 or [email protected]

P.S.  Have you downloaded your copy of my popular guide?  4 Approaches to Conflict and How to Choose the Right One

Get it for FREE for a limited time.


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