Conflict at work is not always a bad thing. We just need to know how to negotiate and manage it appropriately.
‘Conflict’ means 'to fight actively”; it signifies “a difference of opinion, dissent and discord'.
In the workplace this surely has to be a bad thing, undermining teamwork and fruitful relationships?
We beg to disagree.
In its destructive form, driven by insecurity, a desire for power or other kinds of personal baggage, conflict is indeed an issue that we need to work through and overcome. But conflict doesn’t have to be divisive. In fact, for organisations, it can resemble the grit in the oyster that forms the pearl.
In her TED Talk Dare to Disagree, Margaret Heffernan explains how medical doctor Alice Stewart, investigating links between X-rays and childhood cancer, drew on statistician George Kneale to ‘create conflict’ around her theories, actively seeking ‘disconfirmation’ in order to gain the confidence she needed to know she was right.
Stewart was a warm and sociable people person; Kneale, a recluse who preferred numbers to people. In him, Stewart unearthed an active thinking partner and – through conflict – achieved a robust model of collaboration.
This is because constructive conflict fuels originality, puncturing groupthink. It has the power to test concepts, stimulate ideas and solve longstanding problems. When we give each other permission to deviate from conventional thinking, to challenge assumptions and to be disagreeable, creative energy flows and we gain an opportunity to learn and grow. Consider former US president Abraham Lincoln’s decision to appoint prominent rivals to his cabinet. He wanted access to a wide range of talent and diverse opinions, despite the challenges this would bring.
Conversely, a lack of conflict often leads to lazy thinking, decreased transparency, a rise in passive aggression (where people communicate their frustration by disengaging or procrastinating), and reduced creativity – since we are wary of sharing half-formed ideas. It undermines our relationships. Liane Davey, author of The Good Fight, talks of “conflict debt”, by which she means the sum of all the undiscussed and unresolved issues that stand in the way of progress.
Organisations thrive with the right kind of conflict. In his book Making Conflict Work, Peter T Coleman explains how the fiery dynamic between brothers Walt and Roy Disney contributed to their business success. Where Walt was a creative visionary (and unrelenting perfectionist), Roy was a grounded pragmatist with a clear grasp of fiscal responsibility and an easier manner.
Though their conflicts were “frequent and passionate”, they were also “for the most part co-operative” and their strengths complementary. Without Walt’s ruthless genius, their business may not have stood out; without Roy’s realism and interpersonal skills, it might well have gone bankrupt. Their spirit lives on at Disney Inc today, where constructive conflict is valued as a means of developing vibrant, productive and innovative teams.
Daring to create conflict
Coleman’s advice for leaders is “not to take yes for an answer”. However, echo chambers persist in many companies due to fear of conflict, so mistakes are overlooked and red flags glossed over. Few catastrophes (in business or beyond) truly come out of the blue; rather, people choose to ignore simmering doubts and weak signals because they don’t want to deal with the conflict they provoke. This phenomenon occurred across an entire sector in the run-up to the 2008 financial crisis, when a herd mentality predominated to disastrous effect.
Arguing against such “wilful blindness”, Heffernan emphasises that “when we dare to see and we create conflict, we enable ourselves and others to do our very best thinking”. However, for this to happen we must have the courage to surround ourselves with people who are different from ourselves (in terms of background, discipline, ways of thinking and experience) and find ways to engage with them. We must also be open to changing our minds.
In organisations, this involves hiring diversely, championing inclusion and psychological safety and actively encouraging constructive dissent. Leaders should create the expectation that there will be productive tensions within teams and projects. For example, in a publishing company it’s healthy for there to be a level of conflict between sales and editorial, due to their differing priorities.
To help instil this attitude, Davey suggests working with our teams to map the unique value of individual roles and the tensions that ought to exist between them by asking:
- What is the unique value of this role in this team? What should this person be paying attention to that no one else is, and what would we miss if this role didn’t exist?
- On what stakeholders is this role focused? Whom does it serve and what defines success?
- What is the most common tension this role puts on team discussions? What one thing does the person in this role have to say that makes others bristle?
The aim is to open up discussions and address narrow perspectives and imbalances, as well as identifying performance goals that are misaligned with the best interests of the overall team or organisation.
Some organisations go so far as to appoint a ‘dissenter in chief’ or introduce an ‘obligation to dissent’ into certain meetings, allocating someone to question (gently but firmly) perspectives that otherwise have a consensus.
In this, we could learn from the example of Alfred P Sloan Jr, the president of General Motors in the 1920s, who was known for actively soliciting dissenting views. He often ended meetings by saying:
“Gentlemen, I take it we are all in complete agreement on the subject… then I propose we postpone further discussions of this until our next meeting, to give ourselves time to develop disagreement and perhaps gain some understanding of what the decision is all about.”
Why we shouldn’t avoid negative conflict
Not all conflict is helpful, but even negative conflict can have positive (or, at least, less damaging) outcomes depending on how it is handled. After all, conflict is inevitable in the workplace, partly due to the very differences in cultural background, learning styles and personality that make for valuable diverse contributions.
It’s a feature of all human relationships and is more likely to occur in pressured environments in which we spend any length of time together. Power dynamics may also fuel conflict, particularly within competitive cultures that pit people against each other.
The bottom line is that we need to understand what causes divisions within our teams and organisations and how to manage them effectively.
At work, destructive conflict can show up as outright or passive aggression, deriving from personality clashes or disagreements over policies, tasks or decisions. Specific issues that frequently cause friction include unclear responsibilities, competition for resources, performance targets and differing interests (whether personal or departmental).
Ongoing conflict is likely to stem from individuals’ personal baggage: our insecurity (which pushes us to cover our mistakes, criticise before we are criticised or lash out unfairly), our need for power and control, or habitual victimhood – dynamics which also appear in power ‘games’ such as Karpman’s Drama Triangle. When we are in conflict with somebody who has less power than us, it feels like bullying; when it happens the other way round, we feel oppressed and undermined. We sometimes start fights just as a distraction technique.
Self-awareness and self-regulation, combined with true empathy and compassion towards others, lie at the heart of managing conflict. In other words, we need to reflect on our own insecurities and those of others, and to consider threats and drivers, plus attitudes to power. Gaining these insights may prevent us from blundering into dysfunctional patterns of behaviour.
Meanwhile, discord is generally less harmful when resolved with active engagement rather than passive avoidance. When we try to circumvent conflict, tensions often multiply and fester while issues remain unresolved. Leaders who shy away from conflict may lose the respect of their colleagues, sending out the message that they are not confident in themselves or their decisions. Being a leader involves having hard conversations and making difficult decisions.
We may know this deep down, but we continue to avoid conflict because we prefer to confirm our beliefs, cleaving to our cognitive biases, and dread the uncomfortable emotions disagreements provoke (even though we tend to overestimate how unpleasant these will be in reality). When we do decide to embrace conflict, we go about it all wrong, weighing in at a bad time, getting personal rather than sticking to the issues, and fighting to win an argument instead of striving to understand the other person’s point of view.
Using ‘conversational receptiveness’ in our language is one positive strategy for managing conflict recommended by behavioural scientist professor Francesca Gino. This approach involves parties who disagree signalling their willingness to engage with each other’s views through their choice of language. It makes our arguments more persuasive and our style less combative.
To guide us, she and her colleagues have developed a four-part strategy that can help us to leverage conversational receptiveness. This advises us to:
- Acknowledge the other person’s perspective: Saying “I understand” and reiterating their message shows that we are engaged in the conversation. We should also thank the other person for sharing their perspective, signalling that there’s value in it, even though we may not agree.
For example: “I’m in favour of opening up the office, but I do understand what you mean about the benefits of working from home – for example, the commute time saved. Thank you, it’s good to hear a different perspective on this.”
- Hedge our claims: Indicating some uncertainty about our claims – or ‘hedging’ – signals receptiveness. It shows that there is room for manoeuvre in our argument and reframes the conversation as a negotiation.
For example: “Opening up the office might be helpful for younger staff members.”
Rather than: “Opening up the office will definitely be better for younger staff members.”
- Phrase our argument in positive terms: When our phrasing sounds definite and negative in tone, it signals that we are not open to the possibility of further discussion or other perspectives. Using positive terms is less closed and combative.
For example: “Let’s consider the benefits of reducing homeworking to three days a week.”
Rather than: “We should cut homeworking to a maximum of three days a week.”
- Point to areas of agreement, however small: We usually share some values and beliefs with others, even if we disagree passionately about something specific.
For example: “I agree that attitudes to homeworking have changed during the COVID-19 pandemic.”
When we choose our words carefully, Gino believes it is quite possible for people with opposing views to have a constructive discussion about the most controversial of topics. Her advice echoes Amy C Edmondson’s approach to instilling psychological safety into interactions by "responding productively". We don’t have to agree with our colleagues, but even a thoughtful nod counts as an appreciative response. The simplest productive response is to offer help: “I love the phrase, ‘how can I help?’ It’s so rare, and so powerful, and so profound,” says Edmondson.
Of course, behaving in this way requires us to manage our own emotions, invoking our skill of self-regulation – acknowledging anger, for example, and identifying its root cause (often, a previous experience), before taking a breath and choosing to respond calmly.
It also means letting go of our desire to be liked or our habit of people pleasing, and concentrating instead on mutual respect. Equating disagreement with unkindness scares people away from conflict, but where we focus on wider objectives (rather than making criticisms personal or seeking to apportion blame) we can leave relationships intact while doing what is best for the business.
Win-win conflict management
It is this focus on interests, rather than entrenched positions, that underpins the interest-based relational approach (IBR) to negotiation, coined by Roger Fisher and William Ury in their book Getting to Yes.
Based on the work of the Harvard Negotiation Project, their framework relates specifically to win-win negotiation, but the approach has also been applied successfully to conflict resolution. It aims to help us separate our emotions from our problems, making it possible to resolve a conflict while maintaining a positive personal relationship. Essentially, win-win negotiation encourages people in conflict to “see themselves as working side by side, attacking the problem, not each other”.
To deploy this method, we need to:
- Make sure that good relationships are a priority. We don’t all have to like each other, but we all do need to commit to preserving relationships and treating all parties with respect while resolving the issue at hand.
- Separate people from problems. By focusing on problems rather than personalities, we can take a more objective view of the issue and avoid hostility. Valid differences often lie behind conflicting positions.
- Listen carefully to different interests. Rather than simply waiting to respond, we must agree to listen actively to what other parties say, taking on board each person’s circumstances, motivations, interests and needs, and striving to understand their perspective – while being open to changing ours.
- Listen first, talk second. We must give each person an opportunity to set out their position fully before allowing anyone to reiterate or defend their own position.
- Set out the facts. Together, we should set out and review all the relevant information – separating fact from opinion and issues from personal criticisms.
- Explore options together. This step represents the resolution process. We work together in an objective and inclusive way to explore options and generate mutually acceptable solutions.
Understanding conflict behaviours
The win-win process forms the basis of the collaborating mode in the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument (TKI), a tool we can use to understand the different types of conflict behaviour, their effects on personal and group dynamics, and our own default positions.
The TKI posits that in any conflict situation, we might respond in one of five ways, based on two dimensions: assertiveness and cooperativeness:
- assertiveness is the degree to which we try to satisfy our own needs or concerns.
- cooperativeness is the degree to which we try to satisfy the other person’s needs or concerns.
In the workplace, our conflict behaviour is a result of both our personal predispositions and the requirements of the situation in which we find ourselves. No conflict mode is inherently right or wrong. While we all have our default reactions, we need to be able to adapt our approach to the situation, drawing on self-awareness, our understanding of different modes, and when they come into their own.
Competing (“My way or the highway!”)
This position is assertive and uncooperative: the win-lose approach. In this power-orientated mode, we pursue our own concerns at the expense of others’, drawing on whatever power seems appropriate to win our own position; for example, our skill in arguing, our position/rank, or our ability to impose economic sanctions. Competing means ‘standing up for our own rights’ – defending a position which we believe is correct, or simply trying to win an argument.
This approach may be appropriate in emergencies when we need to take decisive action.
Accommodating (“No, after you!”)
Here, we are unassertive and cooperative – the polar opposite of competing. When accommodating, we neglect our own concerns to satisfy those of the other person or group. Accommodating might take the form of selfless generosity or charity, obeying another person’s order when we would prefer not to, or yielding to another’s point of view.
This approach is appropriate when the other party is an expert or has a better solution than we do, or when preserving future relations is more important than pushing our point.
Avoiding (“I’m putting my head in the sand.”)
When we avoid conflict, we are being unassertive and uncooperative. We pursue neither our own concerns or goals nor those of the other person. We therefore fail to deal with the conflict. Avoiding might take the form of sidestepping an issue, postponing it until a better time, or simply withdrawing from a threatening situation.
This is appropriate when the issue is trivial, we have no chance of winning or having a positive effect, or when the atmosphere is emotionally charged.
Collaborating (“Two heads are better than one.”)
Collaboration is assertive and cooperative: the win-win approach. It’s the polar opposite of avoiding. Collaborating involves an attempt to work with others to find a solution that fully satisfies their concerns. It means delving into an issue to pinpoint the underlying needs and wants of both parties. Collaborating might take the form of exploring a disagreement to learn from each other’s insights, or finding creative solutions and making space for everyone’s ideas. However, it requires a lot of trust and it can be an effort to get everyone on board.
This is particularly appropriate in complex scenarios where we need to find an innovative solution.
Compromising (“Let’s split the difference.”)
This approach is moderately assertive and cooperative and aims to find an expedient, mutually acceptable solution that partially satisfies both parties: it’s the lose-lose scenario, falling midway between competing and accommodating (think The Judgement of Solomon). Compromising gives up more than competing but less than accommodating; it addresses an issue more directly than avoiding, but does not explore it in as much depth as collaborating. In some situations, compromising might mean splitting the difference between the two positions, exchanging concessions, or seeking a swift middle-ground solution.
This may be appropriate when we need a temporary solution to tide us over while we come up with something more constructive and permanent.
Learning to flex
As well as taking an assessment to learn how we tend to manage conflict, we can improve our understanding of all the modes and their appropriate uses, and learn to flex them.
For example, it’s clear from this model why collaborating is so constructive – being both assertive and cooperative. However, in an emergency – for example, when an immediate decision is needed to retain a contract with a client – we may not have the time to collaborate with others; the competing mode would be a more efficient way of handling the situation.
And while avoiding conflict is so often negative – being both unassertive and uncooperative – there may be moments when it’s the best course of action. Take a scenario in which two colleagues are calling on us to decide which of them came up with the idea for a teambuilding activity. You don’t want to get drawn into taking sides over a trivial issue, so avoidance works fine.
The ability to adapt our conflict style is therefore a skill we can hone to improve our decisions and protect our relationships, avoiding destructive breakdowns in communication. It requires a strong foundation of self-awareness and a healthy dose of empathy and self-regulation for us to take our own ego out of the equation, ditch our fixed positions and focus instead on an interests-based win-win approach. If we add to that a willingness to encourage constructive conflict – and to use it as a tool for creativity – we will set ourselves apart from many of our peers, enabling our organisations to think, thrive and grow.
Test your understanding
- Explain how the interest-based relational (IBR) approach can lead to a win-win outcome in conflict scenarios.
- Describe when it might be appropriate to use Thomas-Killmann’s ‘compromising mode’ in conflict resolution – and how this differs from ‘collaborating’.
What does it mean for you?
- Try using conversational receptiveness in a discussion with a colleague where you have differing perspectives.
- The next time you face some competing interests or conflict between yourself and someone else or between team members, consider which Thomas-Kilmann approach might lead to the best outcome.
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