Workplace Conflict: How to Make It Good for Business


“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.” This is how an HR director I know who works for a 500+ person company described their technique for working with conflict.

Conflict avoidance is one natural way for humans to get through difficult conversations. Avoidance also happens in the workplace, 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 or interpersonal tiff – doesn’t go away by sweeping it under the rug. Instead it festers and grows as people continue to walk around it and work around it. After a while you can almost feel the “elephant” in the workplace taking up precious space, squeezing out productive things such as … collaboration, creative exchange, motivation, inspired ideas, action, results. The issue becomes increasingly difficult to deal with, and can get destructive and costly, as research shows.

But what if conflict wasn’t a bad thing?

What if conflict was good for business?

Perhaps a tougher concept to swallow. Well, some tip-of-the-arrow workplaces are viewing and using conflict as a positive tool, and an ever-growing number of businesses are catching on. What do they know that you should know?

They know these 3 key benefits of healthy, or constructive, conflict:

Interpersonal or inter-team disputes can be diffused well before they become divisive issues that disrupt the whole workplace.  Either the leadership is skilled in working with these situations or -- even better -- all employees have been trained and empowered to work out these differences for themselves.

Difficult conversations can be turned into leading-edge ideas. When a workplace culture has been developed to allow people to feel heard, respected, and safe in expressing their ideas, space is opened for sky’s-the-limit intellectual exchange, discovery, and creative ideas. “Groupthink” is eliminated. There is no place for this tendency for people to sacrifice quality decision-making and problem-solving for the sake of consensus and conflict avoidance.

More engaged and happier employees. The system to embrace healthy conflict also works to create the foundation for healthy interpersonal relationships, which is the underpinning of an engaging, positive and productive work environment.  People need to feel heard, acknowledged and respected - it’s that simple.

How to make conflict a positive partner in your workplace

1. It starts with the leadership. You set the tone and the will for the entire organization to “embrace conflict,” embed this attitude, and create systems to support it throughout. The mindset is  “…Instead of trying simply to reduce disagreements, senior executives need to embrace conflict and, just as important, institutionalize mechanisms for managing it.” (Harvard Business Review)  This is key because for constructive conflict to work, there must be trust and mutual respect among everyone, from the top to the trenches, on a systemic level.

2. Make sure conflict is properly managed, both on a systemic level as well as individual, with all the ethical and legal considerations involved. This could be a job for experts with 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 building a strong foundation for your 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

How is your organization dealing with conflict -- embracing it or sweeping it under the rug? Share your answers 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.