Today we want to explore the typical types of conflict that occur in the workplace and explain the distinction between negative and productive conflict. Then we’ll point out the costs of negative conflict in personal relationships and business outcomes, and provide insights into how managers can encourage teams to engage in productive conflict. It falls to managers in particular, to set a good example. And lastly, we’ll look at the importance of self-reflection in fostering a culture of productive conflict.

Types of Conflict

There are many forms of conflict that take place at work, but they generally fall into the following categories: 

  • Task conflict: these situations typically arise from differences in ideas, opinions, and strategies related to work tasks and projects. While it has the possibility of leading to innovation and better decision-making, unresolved task conflict can become really negative.
  • Relationship conflict: this happens when interpersonal issues and personal differences (like personality traits) create tension among team members and subsequently hinders collaboration and teamwork.
  • Process conflict: situations tend to occur when there are disagreements about how tasks and projects should be executed which can lead to inefficiency and frustration if not managed properly.

Negative vs. Productive Conflict

Negative conflict typically involves unproductive disagreements that are emotionally charged and hinder progress. Think mean-spirited dialogue, aggressive physical presence meant to intimidate, personal attacks, avoidance, or passive-aggressiveness. All of these behaviors are negative and can lead to damaged relationships, decreased productivity, and an overall toxic work environment.

Productive conflict, on the other hand, is characterized by respectful and constructive disagreements aimed at improving work processes, problem-solving, and decision-making. Productive conflict encourages open communication, creativity, and learning from diverse perspectives. In general, it allows both parties or sides to openly discuss their differences and come to a mutual agreement on how to move forward in a positive manner. 

The Costs of Negative Conflict

The reality is that most people tend to engage in negative conflict. They quickly act on their emotions or they stifle them and act like everything is ok. Neither of which is a recipe for success. Personality differences play a big part in how we approach and respond to conflict. If we’re unaware of our biases and we run headlong into conflict with someone who handles it differently than we do, miscommunication and hurt feelings are usually the outcome. One person feels better, and one person feels squelched and belittled. For those that avoid conflict, the issue can cause grudges to be held and pent up anger just simmers quietly below surface level until one day the person has ‘had it’ and explodes. Both of these examples are lose-lose situations. 

In general, negative conflict can divert time and energy away from productive tasks, hindering overall productivity, and a hostile work environment can lead to decreased job satisfaction, causing turnover and employee disengagement. In addition, continuous negative conflict can result in strained relationships among team members, making collaboration and teamwork challenging. Also, teams that are afraid of conflict may avoid sharing new ideas or raising concerns, hindering innovation. And lastly, when negative conflict prevails, decision-making can become gridlocked, leading to stagnation in projects and goals.

Fostering Productive Conflict

Conflict is inevitable, but how you respond or deal with it is a choice. You can choose to engage in productive conflict instead of going down the red-faced rabbit hole. To encourage productive conflict within your team, consider the following strategies:

  • Encourage open communication and establish norms for doing so. Set clear expectations for how conflicts should be handled, emphasizing the importance of respectful discourse and focusing on the issues rather than individuals and encourage team members to express their opinions, ideas, and concerns openly and respectfully. This is an extremely important component to building trust on the team.  
  • Hold each other accountable. This isn’t about calling someone out in front of the rest of the team, but it is about speaking with individuals privately when they don’t follow the norms. 
  • Provide conflict training that includes guided self-reflection exercises and strategies for improving how they respond to conflict. Understanding your own conflict style can help you make conscious efforts to improve, and tangible strategies for coping and interacting with others will improve future conflict situations within the team. 
  • Promote a feedback culture where feedback is valued and seen as an opportunity for growth. We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again. If you want people to buy in, you need to let them weigh in.
  • Set an example. As a manager, this is especially important because you play a crucial role in shaping the conflict culture within your teams. 

To Wrap It Up

Conflict is an integral part of any workplace, but it doesn’t have to be detrimental. By distinguishing between negative and productive conflict, you can minimize the costs of conflict in personal relationships and business outcomes. Managers, in particular, can play a vital role in fostering a culture of productive conflict by setting the example and providing the necessary tools and training. However, the journey to truly engaging in productive conflict begins with self-reflection. It’s only by understanding how and why we approach conflict that it’s possible to improve our behavior and become role models for productive conflict at work.

If you’d like to up your conflict game, get in touch today. Brilliant People™ offers the Everything DiSC productive conflict training that focuses on how you, as an individual, show up in conflict and why, and then offers tangible strategies for working toward productive conflict. 

We also offer The Five Behaviors of a Cohesive Team™ training for personal development or individual development. Reach out and start your own culture (r)evolution today!

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