Why Conflict at Work is a Good Thing

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When Gabriel visited headquarters from his Milwaukee office, everything seemed great. Members of the team welcomed him warmly, invited him to lunch, and had his workstation set up. Gabriel would be there for a week to transition the team to a new software platform to track their hours, request vacation days, check benefits, find employee discounts, and access health coach advice.

By the time Gabriel finished onboarding the whole team, the “great” office seemed anything but.

conflict at work

He noticed the unusual team dynamics right away, after choosing Jackie, the executive assistant, to go first.

conflict at workShe was nervous from the start, asking if he was sure she should be the first one. Her anxiety made it hard for her to concentrate and the meeting took much longer than expected. Soon he learned why, when he had the operations manager, Evan, on deck. Evan made two comments about the fact that the executive assistant was first, instead of him. Gabriel was confused—did he do something wrong?

When it was Shayda’s turn the next day, she barely spoke. Instead she sat silently with her arms crossed with an air of annoyance. What Gabriel didn’t know was that Shayda had wanted to be trained on the first day so she could leave early for volunteer orientation at the women’s shelter. No one informed him of this, so he went ahead with his training in a room so tense that the air could be cut with a knife.

On Friday, Gabriel joined the team weekly meeting, to be available in case there were any questions about the platform. The meeting took two hours, and only a few people talked, not acknowledging anyone else’s comments. In fact, Evan was constantly asserting his authority, saying things like, “I’m the one who makes the decisions here,” and “Don’t waste my time with ideas I already told you won’t work.”

There was no energy in the room, the topics covered were shallow and boring, and amazingly—after two hours—absolutely nothing was accomplished. No problems were solved and no decisions made. Gabriel walked out wondering what was the point of that meeting and what is wrong with this team?

What is Wrong With This Team?

conflict at work

Gabriel felt mired in conflict. Yet the conflict was completely unspoken. During his time there, he never heard a single confrontation out in the open. Yet it was obvious conflict was buried under the surface. If they aren’t willing to bring their perspectives or ideas to the table (unless they already know everyone agrees), how will this conflict ever be resolved? It was undermining all of their progress, and killing morale. He was excited to get back to his office, where sometimes the discussions were difficult, yet their relationships were a lot easier and certainly more productive.

Conflict is a tricky thing. When you boil it down, conflict is just when one person’s wishes and desires are different from another person’s.  It’s the emotions that conflict evokes that can make situations seem explosive and make people uncomfortable, since conflict is often associated with “being in trouble”. The idea of conflict can bring up feelings of defensiveness, anxiety, anger, guilt, fear and more. For that reason, it is often avoided at all costs.

The reality is, productive ideological conflict is a good thing, and avoiding it in attempt to preserve a false impression of harmony can backfire. Just look at Gabriel’s experience…

So let’s talk about the importance of conflict, what teams that welcome and avoid conflict look like, and how we can start embracing conflict in our own teams starting today.

Great Teams Welcome Conflict

CPP Global’s Human Capital Report on workplace conflict shows the positive outcomes reported by those who experienced workplace conflict.

  • 41% of respondents report better understanding of others
  • 33% experienced improved working relationships
  • 29% found a better solution to a problem or challenge
  • 21% saw higher performance in the team
  • 18% felt increased motivation

Teams That Welcome Conflict, and Teams Who Do Not: What Do They Look Like?

That study is clear—conflict is good for teams. But what does it look like? Here is a snapshot of what teams who don’t welcome conflict look like, compared to teams that do.

Teams That Don’t Welcome Conflict

  • Create a culture where back-channel politics and personal attacks thrive
  • Have boring meetings
  • Ignore topics that are important for success, but are controversial
  • Waste time and energy with posturing

Teams That Welcome Conflict

  • Take and use the ideas of all team members
  • Have energetic, interesting meetings
  • Quickly solve real problems
  • Minimize politics
  • Do not fear putting critical topics on the table for discussion

What Happened When the NBA Avoided Conflict

Looking at sports teams is a great place to learn about teamwork. Yet in this scenario, the NBA isn’t showing us how to be an awesome team—it’s showing us just what avoiding conflict can do.

It was not a secret among the inner circles of the basketball world that Donald Sterling, L.A. Clippers owner at the time, had potential to create PR catastrophes. One example would be his prior multi-million dollar lawsuit with the Department of Justice for driving minorities out of his apartment buildings. Yet even the NBA commissioner pushed Sterling’s problematic issues under the carpet. Why? In order to avoid conflict.

conflict at work

This blew up in their face in April of 2014, when a recording of Sterling making racist statements about players was made public causing NBA unrest, threatened boycott, and a PR disaster.

Sound familiar?

Does avoiding conflict sound familiar to you? Maybe you notice your team is not making progress, or you feel that politics trump all initiatives at work. Or maybe it’s you who is avoiding conflict, harboring resentment for your team, and not reaching your potential. Here are some tips for welcoming conflict at work.

Three Tips for Welcoming Conflict at Work

  1. Remember Everyone’s Opinions Matter

  • Everyone on the team should be able to express their opinions without the fear of retribution
  1. Move Away From Finger Pointing

  • Work toward perceiving, understanding and respecting where others are coming from
  1. Appreciate that Workplace Conflict is Inevitable

  • Disagreements at work are a given; avoiding them won’t make them go away
  • Don’t hit the roof when you realize the team isn’t working well together; accept it
  • Remove yourself from the situation and analyze how this conflict might benefit the team

So let’s go back to Gabriel’s experience where back channel politics plagued the office. The executive assistant was a distracted, nervous wreck knowing that she was seen as “below” the operations manager, yet had been taken to the onboarding session first. And she was right; Evan was fuming because he wasn’t able to assert his superiority by being chosen first. This anxiety-inducing dynamic will continue to exist unless one of them is willing to address the conflict, or one of them leaves the organization.

Shayda also chose not to cause a conflict by asserting that she needed to leave for volunteer orientation at the women’s shelter. Instead, she was tense, miserable and resentful. If she didn’t fear conflict, she would have made her request known, and probably had the opportunity to go to orientation.

The meeting Gabriel joined was also an example of a team that avoids conflict. Nothing got accomplished because no one was comfortable speaking up to share their ideas. And Evan was so busy asserting his authority that he wouldn’t take advantage of the skills and creativity of his teammates. This constant assertion of dominance, coupled with the stagnating results of those avoiding any type of conflict, led to a pointless meeting that nearly put Gabriel to sleep.

Imagine how lively the meeting would be if people were willing to cause potential conflicts in order to solve problems, share ideas, and get things done? Their progress was and will continue to be stunted unless they stop avoiding a perfectly normal byproduct of teamwork—conflict.

How do you feel about conflict at work? Do you face it head on or avoid it? If you avoid it, what makes you the most uncomfortable about conflict? Let me know in the comment section below, send me an email, or find me on Twitter.

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