Conflict in the workplace is often ugly and uncomfortable, but it is also unavoidable. So, it’s in your best interest to make the most out of a contentious situation and come to a place of understanding. Big Leap has recently put such methods into practice in our senior leadership meetings.
Weeks after agreeing that, as a senior leadership team, we all needed to speak up, discuss, and call each other out, we met for our regular biweekly meeting. It quickly segued into a topic that many had differing opinions on. A bit hesitantly, members started to speak up and share their thoughts.
This was a fairly new practice for us. Most of the time, one or two would speak up but the rest would remain quiet. We’d half-heartedly agree to the outcome and move on—with little fervor—no real buy-in and total lack of commitment.
This time, healthy conflict was at a peak. We were sharing and discussing passionately. However, one member started behaving in a way that wasn’t conducive to trust. They seemed defensive. They pushed in ways that weren’t aligned with what we’d previously agreed upon.
I could see that people were starting to shut down and retreat. I sat there for a second, thinking through all sides. I argued with myself on whether or not to call them out…after all, they were my superior. Finally, I mustered up the courage to speak up and push back.
I said, “It seems as if you’re getting defensive. The vibe is sort of shutting down the healthy conflict we all agreed to.” Their eyes got wide, their hands came up and they immediately apologized. There was a visible sigh of relief and the discussion continued on.
From that point, we’ve continued with healthy conflict. The fear we once had and the lack of trust that existed are gone. It’s been months and months now and our discussions, our ability to make decisions, our commitment and the way we hold each other accountable have all improved drastically. We’re the true definition of team.
The fact is, conflict in the workplace is unavoidable. A recent study found that 85% of employees (individual contributors and leaders) agreed they experience workplace conflict.
But just because conflict is inevitable does not mean it has to be unpleasant. If you have the right skills and set proper expectations to properly manage conflict, you can encourage healthy outcomes.
Big Leap learned through practice the importance of healthy conflict. We’re now more bought in and committed to every decision we make. And now, we’d like to share some of that insight with you.
What Is Healthy Conflict in the Workplace?
Healthy conflict in the workplace is any instance of contentious interactions that are built on a foundation of trust and mutual respect. Instead of getting into an argument for the sake of proving oneself right, healthy conflicts are geared toward helping both parties come to an understanding of one another’s stance. Even better, healthy conflict helps us make better business decisions and achieve total commitment to a unified goal across leaders and teams.
This type of conflict is the only conflict worth your time. Through it, everyone involved can feel empowered and encouraged to truly speak their mind while finding common ground.
Difference Between Healthy Conflict and Being a Jerk
Now, we know there will be some people who read this article and use it to excuse their poor conflict practices, claiming they’re just trying to inspire healthy conflict. To keep people from excusing their toxic behaviors, let’s quickly go over the difference between healthy conflict and just being a jerk:
Speeding Towards a Compromise
Many unhealthy conflict contributors claim to be “solution-oriented” and will try to accelerate conversations until a compromise is reached. This is because they see compromise as a “win-win” scenario. Don’t be fooled—compromise is never a “win-win.” Win-win scenarios do not exist.
Sure, this approach may lead people to get back to the task at hand, but it just avoids the discomfort of longer conflicts. Some conflicts require a lot of time and deliberation to settle.
Speeding to a compromise will instead limit the number of creative solutions and will leave both sides of the conflict unsatisfied.
Being Reactive or Defensive
Healthy conflict is interactive, not reactive. Some people will immediately jump to their defense when they feel they’re being targeted with a comment. Even if they seem to be in jest, these reactions erode trust and emit an awkward atmosphere.
Leveraging Seniority or Experience
Everyone is on the same playing field when it comes to healthy conflict. If an individual tries to leverage their seniority in the company as authority to have more say in the matter, they are not creating a harmonious environment. They’re just looking for a power trip.
This one may seem obvious, but the signs are sometimes easy to miss. Intentional excluding someone or ignoring their presence are subtle ways workplace bullies sow unhealthy conflict. Additionally, repeatedly targeting an individual over conflicts that have already been resolved is not productive, you’re just being a jerk.
3 Signs Your Company Is Conflict Averse
You might be right if you don’t believe there is much unhealthy conflict in your workplace. Many companies don’t experience conflict at all. But that’s also a problem.
If your company seems to have virtually no conflict, that does not mean your employees are working in a utopia. Rather, that likely means your employees are too afraid to speak up—they are conflict-averse.
Want to know if this is the case with your conflict-free workplace? Here are three signs your company may be conflict-averse.
- Employees deny issues exist: When managers ask their employees for feedback, the employee often says they have nothing to say. This likely isn’t true, the employee is simply too afraid or uncomfortable to bring up the issue. Or, when the employee is faced with a specific issue, they try to downplay the effect it has on their work.
- Secret conversations: Of course, employees who don’t vent to managers likely vent to their coworkers. Conflict-averse employees would rather have quiet conversations at their desks or on a private instant messaging service to voice their concerns. Unfortunately, while this may make the employees feel better, it does nothing to help the betterment of the company.
- Infrequent outbursts: Maybe you don’t see consistent conflict in the workplace, but there is the periodic outburst of aggression. This may be the result of “gunnysacking” — a funny word with serious meaning. Gunnysacking is a term used in psychology to describe the phenomenon of “bottling it up.” Instead of frequently addressing conflict, a conflict-averse person will silently seethe in anger, resenting those who wronged them. Eventually, that bottled-up resentment turns into an outburst.
The Pitfalls of Avoiding Conflict (Healthy or Otherwise)
If you’re reading this as a proudly conflict-averse person, you may not see much wrong with minimizing conflict in the workplace. But be warned, there are profound opportunities you miss out on when you don’t let conflict run its course:
- Contributes to lower retention: Being conflict-averse is often another way to say you prefer the “flight” option in “fight or flight.” When employees aren’t willing to “fight” (or confront) their grievances, they’re much more likely to move to another company entirely to continue to avoid the conflict.
- Causes growing resentment in the workforce: As employees bottle up their anger towards things at work, it can turn into a festering resentment. This can lead to general disdain in the workplace and lower employee morale.
- Encourages fear-based decision-making: When your teams are too afraid to confront one another, they’ll often make rash and uncalculated decisions based on fear. We shouldn’t have to tell you how bad of an influence fear can have on a business.
- Enables a growing divide between employees and managers: If your managers don’t encourage employees to speak their minds, they could be missing out on some really important discussions. And when those discussions don’t happen, employees and managers can be more distant and closed-off from one another.
You have a lot to lose by avoiding conflict. But what do you have to gain from embracing it?
The Benefits of Embracing Healthy Workplace Conflict
Now onto the good stuff: why workplace conflict can be a great thing. If you’ve skipped to this part of the article, we don’t blame you!
A recent study found that 95% of employees who received training in conflict management were able to better find positive conflict resolutions. The true list of benefits is virtually endless, but in an attempt to contain our excitement, we’ll give you these seven advantages to embracing conflict in the workplace.
1. Encourages New Perspectives
Businesses thrive in environments that encourage innovation and new ideas. But to create these environments, a certain level of conflict is required. Only through conflict can new perspectives be revealed and celebrated.
Plus, having multiple unique perspectives on a single issue can help your business home in on the best solution since every voiced opinion will bring new considerations to light. Every employee should be comfortable with having their perception tested, as these new perspectives may change their opinions for the better.
2. Identifies Problems More Quickly
Speaking of new perspectives, encouraging employees to voice opinions more often can help your business identify problems faster than before. For example, say your business starts a new initiative that disproportionately affects a specific department’s ability to be productive. In a business that embraces conflict, this is not a problem that would be missed. Employees can voice their opinion as soon as they notice a negative effect.
This has applications for project management as well. Instead of being surrounded by yes-men, employees will identify potential problems and bring them to managers’ attention.
3. Strengthens Morale
When employees feel like their opinions are listened to and see a noticeable change in response to their feedback, morale increases. It’s simple: employees want to feel respected. The best way to do that is to create an environment where their voices are listened to free of judgment.
4. Builds Healthier Working Relationships
Working through problems together, whether it’s on a peer-to-peer level or in an employee-manager interaction, can bring people closer together. These interactions, while filled with contention at the moment, can help everyone involved increase their understanding of one another. That understanding can go a long way in future conflicts and is key for developing stronger relationships.
5. Improves Trajectory Of Personal Growth
Embracing conflict can also directly affect the trajectory of your employees’ careers and personal growth. Conversations about raises, promotions, and even opportunities in different departments or companies will be commonplace.
While a conflict-averse business would try to avoid these conversations, one that embraces conflict recognizes that these are important conversations to have. This is a show of good faith that your interest in your employees extends into their future.
6. Teaches Employees To Listen
Conflict in the workplace also teaches employees to listen to one another. When conflict is managed properly (which we’ll discuss how to do in the next section), emotions remain neutral and opinions are voiced in a calm, straightforward approach. And by teaching your employees to listen, you’re helping them access all the information they need to make informed decisions in virtually any situation.
7. Clarifies Intentions
Believe it or not, people can be misunderstood. Sometimes, they may say something that unintentionally offends or rubs someone wrong—like in the story we shared at the beginning. While it may be tempting to grit your teeth and ignore the comment, it’s infinitely better to address the comment head-on.
Best case scenario, you find out the person didn’t intend to upset anyone and you can all move forward with a clarified understanding of their comment. Worst case scenario, the person doubles down on their offensive remark. Then you simply have a jumping-off point for a more serious discussion.
How to Embrace Healthy Conflict (and Manage It Properly)
Before you go out guns blazing, encouraging everyone to embrace the conflict in a work setting, you should first understand how to inspire healthy conflict. It’s too easy to be contentious without coming from a place of understanding first.
Although we’ve already explained the difference between healthy conflict and being a dick, just knowing the difference between the two isn’t enough. You have to know proper management techniques so conflict never gets out of hand. Here are seven tips that tell you how to do that.
1. Prepare Whenever Possible
Not every conflict can be foreseen. But if you know a conflict is coming up, whether it’s a tough conversation or a general conversation with the entire company, encourage participants to prepare. This way they can come to the conversation with organized thoughts and specific, planned points they wish to make.
2. Look for Common Ground
Establish common ground as quickly as possible. Maybe it’s a common goal or a common belief about how a certain process should be. Whatever that common ground is, make sure to identify it so you can use it as a guiding light throughout the conversation.
Do not confuse finding common ground for finding a “middle ground.” Middle ground refers to a compromise. If you try to compromise right away, you’ll fail to have rich, in-depth conversations about the issues at hand.
3. Train Employees on Problem-Solving Skills
Make sure your employees are trained to handle and behave during conflict properly. It won’t help to just throw a conflict-averse employee into the frontlines of conflict. Train them to adequately stand up for what they believe in a manner that’s focused on problem-solving and goal setting.
4. Maintain Debates Until a Viable Solution Is Found
Don’t finish a conversation when you’ve come up with a compromise or until one person gives up on their viewpoint. Instead, continue the debate until you’ve come to a solution or realization that satisfies all parties.
There may be some compromise required to get to this point, which is why it’s important to establish expectations at the beginning.
5. Practice Active Listening
Active listening is a must in conflict. It helps everyone involved to best understand where the other person is coming from by analyzing verbal and nonverbal queues.
A great way to understand active listening is to recognize that it is not at all reactive. Instead of responding to defend your viewpoint, you are responding to better understand the opposite view.
6. Expect Others to Defend Their Opinions
If someone comes into a conversation with a dissenting opinion, they better have a genuine defense for their argument. Otherwise, their opinion will be tossed to the wayside, no matter how real it may actually be.
This encourages people to look at their own viewpoints through a critical lens. It also discourages others from playing the devil’s advocate “just for fun.”
7. Reward and Recognize Those Willing to Challenge the Status Quo
An incentive is always a good idea when you wish to encourage new behavior. If you notice an employee is always challenging the status quo, reward them. Whether it’s simple public recognition or a bonus on their next paycheck, everyone in the company should know there is a reward for speaking up.
But don’t only award people who are outspoken—recognize those who used to be conflict-averse but are branching out more often with their opinions.
It’s Time to Embrace the Uncomfortable
Starting to embrace confrontation can be intimidating, especially when your employees aren’t used to it. But that initial discomfort is much more appealing than the perpetual discomfort your employees may experience when they don’t confront their problems at all.
We encourage you to make a conscious effort to have difficult conversations in your business so your culture, and individual employees, can thrive under your roof.