Team Conflict: The Good, Bad, and Ugly

Conflict costs US businesses $359 Billion per year. For many, the thought of addressing team conflict proactively is enough to necessitate a mental health day.  Most leaders feel unprepared for addressing conflict in the workplace, which is not surprising given that 60% of employees have never received basic conflict resolution training.

Conflict itself is stress-inducing enough, but tackling the issue as a leader can feel like being asked to walk a tight rope while blind-folded. Before deciding how to address the conflict, it’s important to define which kinds of conflict are truly dangerous for the workplace. Let’s break down the good, bad, and ugly of workplace conflict.

The Good

While the word conflict itself has a negative connotation for most people, not all conflict should be stopped. Competitive conflict and conflict over creative direction can drive innovation and breakthroughs. In creative conflicts, as long as the parties involved are aligned on the overall goal/vision, the conflict centers around the details/path to achieve that goal. Leaders can harness the positive opportunities in these situations by reminding everyone of the shared vision. Then, leaders should facilitate conversations to foster a culture of open communication. Reminding everyone that their contributions are valuable and meaningful can remind team members that there are no winners or losers in the process. While actively listening to each person’s perspective, clearly articulate your expectations and the decision-making process you will use to identify the ideal solution. Engaging everyone and asking team members to communicate their thoughts while respecting their counterparts’ contributions can help make everyone feel a part of the process.

The Bad

Interpersonal conflict can be one of the most challenging types of conflict. In the end, it’s impossible to force someone to like another person. The goal is to create a healthy, mutual respect for one another while acknowledging that individual differences are neither good nor bad. The key with interpersonal conflict is to identify the source. This could be anything from work styles to personality preferences or even a simple miscommunication. Identifying individual differences through a communication workshop or personality trait/type team building can be helpful for creating a common to express preferences. One thing a leader must do in personality-based team-building exercises, though, is ensure that once differences are acknowledged, reinforce that everyone should work to accommodate the needs/preferences of others. Too often the result of a quick personality workshop is that everyone identifies with their type and digs their heels in on their preferred behavior. “Well, I’m an introvert, so it’s okay that I prefer to communicate via email” vs “I’m an introvert, but I understand that my extroverted colleagues would appreciate if I stopped by their office occasionally for a quick question.”

The Ugly

The worst kind of conflict is the kind that is personally and professionally destructive. When conflict is aggressive, combative, or violent, it must be stopped immediately (often with the guidance of Human Resources). When it becomes clear that someone’s mental health, physical health, or safety are in jeopardy, there is no room for error in addressing the conflict immediately.

I don’t know if anyone ever enjoys addressing conflict—not even the positive creative kind. Ironically, it seems the only thing worse than ignoring conflict itself is ignoring the need to train leaders how to address conflict!