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Why Your Team Needs Conflict and How to Make It Productive

By John Estafanous

ceo & founder, RallyBright

October 23, 2018

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

Conflict can spur the better ideas, creativity and greater innovation that helps leading companies gain a competitive edge. And according to a paper by Bernie Mayer, Ph.D., of Queen’s University in Canada, healthy conflict is necessary. “Unless we can empower people to deal with problems that arise along the way, to face difficulties, to recognize and adjust when strategies are not working or are impossible to implement, to help those who are struggling, to handle the inevitable tensions and conflicts that challenging work engenders, and to maintain a positive attitude about that work, we cannot build a truly effective team, unit or organization,” he writes. He adds that if conflict isn’t dealt with directly, “problems fester, important views are squelched, and effective communication is inhibited.”

Good conflict means productive conflict

But here’s one important caveat: the conflict must be productive. At RallyBright we view productive 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.

Say your team is having a brainstorming session, and two colleagues can’t come to a consensus on which ideas should move forward. Good conflict looks like this: rather than getting heated, shutting each other down, making comments tinged with personal judgements or passive-aggression, the two have a friendly debate and try to learn where the other person is coming from. Each validates and respects the other’s opinion even if they don’t agree (“I see where you’re coming from, and I respect that’s what you think is best for the business, but I disagree because of XYZ”). This is productive conflict because the brainstorm is for the benefit of the business and it’s friendly in tone. When handled like this, conflict can help team members learn to communicate better and become more open to new ideas and perspectives – which can fuel creativity.

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

  1. Model a conflict-positive attitude

Work to build a mutual understanding among your colleagues that 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.

  1. 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 is displaying 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 try 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 dominating personalities, here’s our advice to deal with that.

  1. Productively surface conflict through thoughtful framing

At work, people often don’t make enough of an 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 “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.”

  1. Resolve disagreements in a way that satisfies differing 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 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, and remember that some people are more conflict-avoidant than others. If you’re not sure, don’t hesitate to approach employees individually and find out what they’re comfortable with.

  1. 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.

Every team has a predominant conflict style. Do you know yours? Read about the five team conflict styles and how they impact behaviors and performance.

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