How to Encourage Meaningful, Needed Conflict at Work

10 Tips for Participating in Healthy Work Conflict

Two female employees participate in healthy conflict about a decision at work.
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Conflict avoidance is most frequently the topic when a conflict in organizations is discussed. Conflict resolution, as quickly as possible, is the second most frequent topic. This is bad news because meaningful work conflict is a cornerstone of healthy, successful organizations. Conflict is necessary for effective problem solving and effective interpersonal relationships.

These statements may seem unusual to you. If you are like many people, you avoid conflict in your daily work life. You see only the negative results of conflict. Especially in the Human Resources profession, or as a manager or supervisor, you may even find that you spend too much of your precious time mediating disputes between coworkers.

Why People Don't Participate in Appropriate Work Conflict

There are many reasons why people don't stand up for their beliefs and bring important differences to the table. (In organizations, this translates into people nodding in unison when the manager asks if the group agrees, but then complaining about the decision later.) Conflict is usually uncomfortable. Many people don't know how to participate in and manage workplace conflicts in a positive way.

In a poorly carried out conflict, people sometimes get hurt. They become defensive because they feel under attack personally. People have to work with certain people every single day, so they are afraid conflict will harm these necessary ongoing relationships.

Why Appropriate Work Conflict Is Important

Effectively managed work conflict has many positive results for your organization, however. When people can disagree with each other and lobby for different ideas, your organization is healthier. Disagreements often result in a more thorough study of options and better decisions and direction.

According to Peter Block, in "The Empowered Manager: Positive Political Skills at Work," if you are unwilling to participate in organizational politics and conflict, you will never accomplish the things that are important to you at work, your work mission.

And, that would be tragic.

So, knowing how to raise issues and participate in meaningful work conflict is key to your success in work and in life. These tips will help.

10 Tips for Healthy Work Conflict

Create a work environment in which healthy conflict is encouraged by setting clear expectations.

Foster an organizational culture or environment in which differences of opinion are encouraged. Make differences the expectation and healthy debate about issues and ideas the norm.

Placing emphasis on the common goals people share within your organization can help. People have a tendency to focus on the differences experienced with another rather than focusing on the beliefs and goals they have in common with each other.

If organizational goals are aligned, and all employees are moving in the same direction, healthy work conflict about how to get there is respected. If you are a manager or team leader, do this by asking others to express their opinion before you speak your own. Tell people that you want them to speak up when they disagree or have an opinion that is different from others in the group.

Reward, recognize, and thank people who are willing to take a stand and support their position.

You can publicly thank people who are willing to disagree with the direction of a group. Your recognition system, bonus system, pay, and benefits package and performance management process should all reward the employees who practice personal, organizational courage, and pursue appropriate work conflict.

These employees speak up to disagree or propose a different approach even in the face of pressure from the group to agree. They lobby passionately for their cause or belief, yet, when all the debating is over, they support the decisions made by the team just as passionately.

If you experience little dissension in your group, examine your own actions.

If you believe you want different opinions expressed and want to avoid group conflicts, and you experience little disagreement from staff, examine your own actions.

Do you, non-verbally or verbally, send the message that it is really not okay to disagree? Do you put employees in a "hot seat" when they express an opinion? Do they get "in trouble" if they are wrong or a predicted solution fails to work?

Look inside yourself personally, and even seek feedback from a trusted advisor or staff member, if the behavior of your team tells you that you are inadvertently sending the wrong message.

Expect people to support their opinions and recommendations with data and facts.

Divergent opinions are encouraged, but the opinions are arrived at through the study of data and facts. Staff members are encouraged to collect data that will illuminate the process or the problem.

Create a group norm that conflict around ideas and direction is expected and that personal attacks are not tolerated.

Any group that comes together regularly to lead an organization or department, solve a problem, or to improve or create a process would benefit from having developed a set of group norms. These are the relationship guidelines, or rules group members agree to follow.

They often include the expectation that all members will speak honestly, that all opinions are equal, and that each person will participate. These guidelines also set up the expectation that personal attacks are not tolerated whereas healthy debate about ideas and options is encouraged. They establish the method for how the group will communicate among members and the organizational world outside of the team.

Provide employees with training in healthy conflict and problem-solving skills.

Sometimes people fail to stand up for their beliefs because they don't know how to do so comfortably. Your staff will benefit from education and training in interpersonal communication, problem-solving, conflict resolution, and particularly, non-defensive communication. Goal setting, meeting management, and leadership will also help employees exercise their freedom of speech in a non-intrusive or bullying manner.

Look for signs that a conflict about a solution or direction is getting out of hand.

Exercise your best observation skills and notice whether tension is becoming unhealthy. Listen to criticism of fellow staff members, an increase in the number and severity of "digs" or putdowns, and negative comments about the solution or process. Are secret meetings increasing? Are meetings behind closed doors with a few participants on the rise? These are not positive signs for your group cohesiveness.

In one small company, staff members held email wars in which the nastiness of the emails grew and the list of staff members copied could eventually include the whole company. This process should have been stopped from the start by organization leaders. It was terribly negative for the entire organization.

If you observe that tension and conflict are endangering your workplace harmony, hold a conflict resolution meeting with the combatants immediately. Yes, you do need to mediate. It's okay to have positive conflict but not to allow negative conflict to destroy your work environment.

Hire people who you believe will add value to your organization with their willingness to problem solve and debate.

Behavioral interview questions will help you assess the assertiveness of your potential employees. You want to hire people who are willing to act boldly and who are unconcerned about whether they are well-liked. These are the people who will add value to your organization.

Look and listen for situations in which the potential employee has stood up for their beliefs, worked with a team to solve problems, or pushed an unpopular agenda at work. Yes, you want a harmonious workplace but not at the sacrifice of everyone's success.

Make executive compensation dependent upon the success of the organization as a whole as well as the accomplishment of individual goals.

Pay executives part of their compensation based on the success of the total organization. It ensures that people are committed to the same goals and direction.

They will look for the best approach, the best idea, and the best solution, not just the one that will benefit their own area of interest. This will also ensure that the people in their organizations spend their time problem solving and solution-seeking rather than finger-pointing, blaming, and looking to see who is guilty when a problem occurs or a commitment is missed.

If you are using all of the first nine tips, and healthy work conflict is not occurring...

You need to sit down with the people who report to you directly and with their direct reporting staff and ask them why.

The Bottom Line

Some positive, problem-solving discussions might allow your group to identify and rectify any problem that stands in the way of open, healthy, positive, constructive work conflict and debate. The future success of your organization depends on your staff's willingness to participate in healthy work conflict, so this discussion is worth your time.