A Case for Disagreeing in the Workplace

The title of a Harvard Business Review article grabbed my attention: “Why We Should Be Disagreeing More at Work.” I have made a science and life’s work out of this concept, called (perhaps loftily) “conflict competence,” and to see it described so simply really turned my head. Author Amy Gallo’s take is refreshing and spot-on, and a recommended read.  


The basic truth about the topic of conflict, as Amy Gallo explains, is that “people don’t want to disagree or know how to do it. In fact, we’ve come to equate saying ‘I see it differently’ or ‘I don’t agree’ with being angry, rude, or unkind, so it makes most people horribly uncomfortable.”

Of course agreeing is easier that disagreeing. For some of us our default is to avoid conflict - at all costs. The truth is that you WILL be faced with conflict in your workplace at one time or another.

Conflict naturally occurs when two or more people have divergent ideas, needs, and wants. It’s normal, inevitable and every organization experiences it. “There is no such thing as a conflict-free work environment. You might dream of working in a peaceful utopia, but it wouldn’t be good for your company, your work, or you,” says Amy Gallo.

Why Conflict can be a good thing

Working with what we call Constructive Conflict or Conflict Competence, I see every day how conflict can be good for a company, the team, and individuals. In fact, it’s a powerful business tool. A business that taps into and harnesses conflict looks like this:

  • A workplace culture that is productive, innovative, and positive
  • Teams that are cohesive and collaborative, where diverse relationships and bold ideas mix and bang together
  • Improved efficiency and less management time spent dealing with negative conflict issues
  • Conflict capacity-building that helps teams stay nimble, and remain curious and creative even in challenging circumstances
  • A business brand that is known for growth, innovation, quick market entry, and a magnet to high-quality employees

Amy Gallo refers to an article in Rotman Management, “Diversity’s New Frontier: Diversity of Thought,” by Anesa Parker, Carmen Medina, and Elizabeth Schill, whose research suggests that managers and employees need to get over an “instinctual urge to avoid conflict.” She asserts that leaders “have an obligation to design conflicts that allow their teams to be creative and productive. Put simply, we have to learn how to disagree more, and managers need to take responsibility for making it comfortable and OK for people to dissent, debate, and express their true opinions.”


What can you do to get more comfortable with conflict?

Amy Gallo then offers some practical help for the “conflict-averse person” to get more comfortable with conflict. I’ll just list them here and, again, recommend you read the full article:

Let go of needing to be liked. It’s more about respect, trust and mutual support in exchanging ideas.

Focus on the big picture of what’s best for the team or organization, rather than take a disagreement personally.

Don’t equate disagreement with unkindness. Be aware that you may be projecting your own discomfort, not theirs. Focus on sharing respectfully, honoring different perspectives from your own.

Find a role model and emulate them. If you know someone who does a “good job of being direct and honest about their thoughts and opinions without ruffling feathers” see what you can learn from them.

What are some challenges you find in dealing with disagreements or conflict? Share your thoughts in the comments below. If you’d like to talk more about embracing constructive conflict, please feel free to schedule a conversation with us here.