How Conflict in the Workplace isn’t as Bad as You Think (and What to Do About it)

An HR director I know who works for a 500+ person company, described their technique for working with conflict this way: “We don’t work with conflict proactively. We sweep it under the rug until at some point we’re tripping over the bump in the rug. That’s when we deal with it.”

Conflict avoidance is one natural way for humans to get through difficult conversations at home. In some cases, it can help keep the peace and may be a good way to roll. Avoidance also happens in a work environment, especially in teams that have not built the mutual trust needed to have difficult conversations on a regular basis.

The problem is that the issue – that difficult conversation or confrontation – doesn’t go away by sweeping it under the rug. Instead it festers and grows as people continue to work around it, avoiding it. After a while you can almost feel the “elephant” in the workplace taking up precious space, squeezing out productive things like… collaboration, creative exchange, motivation, inspired ideas, action, results. So the issue becomes increasingly difficult to deal with, and can get destructive and costly.

In HR Magazine’s article How Commitment Affects Team Performanceauthors Bishop and Scott tell us: “Research shows that if unhealthy conflict goes unresolved for too long, team members are likely to leave the company or use valuable time searching for alternatives.” This outcome applies to C-Suite level and work groups alike, so the potential consequences can be company-wide.

These are just two of the clear and compelling reasons to address conflict in your workplace. But conflict as a good thing? Perhaps a tougher concept to swallow.

So what’s so good about conflict?

Some tip-of-the-arrow workplaces view conflict as a positive tool. It’s rare, but a growing number of businesses are catching on. They know that conflict, properly managed, diffuses disputes and can turn difficult conversations into leading edge ideas.  

Even more interesting, conflict (also known as constructive conflict) can be critical to eliminating a workplace culture of “groupthink,” i.e., the tendency to sacrifice quality decision-making and problem-solving for the sake of consensus and conflict avoidance. Studies show that creative performance in teams is achieved mainly by cognitive confrontation, not agreement. Moreover, studies about innovation show us that, without a doubt, intellectual conflict has positive effects on achieving results and well-being.

How to make conflict a positive partner in your workplace

1. Start at the executive level. Jeff Weiss and Jonathan Hughes say it best in their Harvard Business Review article: “…instead of trying simply to reduce disagreements, senior executives need to embrace conflict and, just as important, institutionalize mechanisms for managing it.”

It’s up to the C-Suite to “embrace conflict,” embed this attitude and create systems to support it throughout the company. This is key because for constructive conflict to work, there needs to be trust and mutual respect among everyone, from the top to the trenches.

2. Make sure conflict is properly managed by instituting a field-tested approach which:

  • Teaches leaders how to anticipate and engage conflict for positive outcomes

  • Establishes clear rules of engagement

  • Nurtures teamwork, mutual trust, open communications and creative input

3. Take a proactive stance by implementing a plan for workplace teams which:

  • Addresses disputes and disagreements before they become “elephants”

  • Encourages a healthy exchange of ideas and needs

  • Empowers individuals with skills such as meeting etiquette, giving and getting feedback, trusting and respecting others, and quality problem-solving

Are you wondering if there is costly conflict being swept under the rug in your workplace? Click here to learn more. And please share your comments with us below.