Many people don’t enjoy conflict. We often undervalue the positive role that healthy conflict can contribute to the workplace. Workplace disagreements don’t have to result in hurt feelings, anger, or anxiety. When properly facilitated, healthy conflict can create opportunities for innovation, better decision making, and more robust strategic thinking.
The first thing to recognize is that at the heart of disagreement is passion. Individuals who don’t care deeply about the success of a project, future of the organization, or organizational values won’t devote any energy to engaging in conflict. Disagreement means your team members are engaged enough to care about the outcome, and that is an important element to be harnessed when possible. It can also be one way to establish common ground when facilitating positive conflict. When everyone remembers that they share a common goal, it creates an opportunity for parties to recognize that conflict isn’t always a zero-sum game.
To harness the positive effects of healthy conflict, it’s important to re-frame what conflict can/should look like in a professional setting. Appropriate workplace conflict doesn’t include yelling, inappropriate language, or workplace violence. For starters, openly acknowledge some of the important advances your organization/team has made as a result of well-facilitated conflict. This can create a new, positive perception of healthy conflict and create opportunities for individual growth.
It can be powerful to share an example of a time when pushing for consensus resulted in a negative outcome. Perhaps a project failed or a competitor seized an opportunity that was missed by the organization. It’s important to tie the role of thoughtful communication that challenges ideas to real business results. No one wants to believe they’re working at the next Blackberry, Blockbuster, or Nokia, but failing to innovate results because of complacent thought processes.
Once you’ve established the business case for challenging the status quo, it’s time for leaders to model the behavior. Encourage ego-free, open dialogues about strategy, decision making, and problem-solving. Model the same kind of discussions you want to occur on the front lines of your organization. Similarly, encourage employees at all levels to be vocal about their ideas and acknowledge that hierarchy has no place in innovation.
Finally, recognize that healthy conflict doesn’t come naturally to everyone. It will take training, time, and practice to see behavioral change, but it all starts with creating group norms regarding what is (and is not) expected during conflict. Formal conflict management training can be particularly effective, especially when it is paired with action learning methodology. It takes time to become comfortable with challenging ideas, disagreeing, and solving complex issues. Organizational conflict training provides a safe place to exercise conflict management techniques during group exercises before implementing those techniques in live scenarios.
Remember that real workplace conflict also carries the added element of emotion. This is an element that is difficult to replicate in a training exercise. As a result, it’s important that you explicitly state expectations and create guidelines that reinforce minimum requirements (such as respectful tone/language).
Over time, you will build a culture that values healthy conflict. You will build confidence in challenging ideas, disagreeing with strategy, and pushing everyone to make difficult decisions. In the end, you will empower team members to think more critically and create stronger business outcomes.