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In the workplace, many employees and managers try to avoid conflict at all costs. Of course, even if you’ve done everything you can to set up the conditions for a harmonious workplace, some conflict is unavoidable. However, not all conflict is bad. The conflict that helps team members to better understand one another, business leaders to make better decisions, and organizations to achieve goals is actually healthy instead of destructive.

The term for this kind of conflict is “productive conflict.” It’s been defined as “a conceptual mindset of thinking about conflict as a way to achieve organizational alignment and forward action.” Leaders that promote productive conflict enable employees to voice (and listen to) opinions without fear of undue criticism. This type of confrontational dialogue allows for honest differences of opinion without anger or resentment.

The question is, how can you tell the difference between productive and unproductive conflict? The following information can help.

Productive Conflict vs. Unproductive Conflict

There are 2 key differences between productive and unproductive conflict:

1.       What is achieved

2.       How the participants feel afterward

 Notice how the bullet points and examples below demonstrate these differences.

The Elements of a Productive Conflict

•  Productive conflict always remains focused on the issue at hand. Whether it’s a communication issue, a training opportunity, or an important business decision, productive conflict is solution-oriented. There may be strong disagreements at times, but they should never devolve into personal attacks. By the end of the conflict, there’s a clear plan of action in place.

•  Productive conflict allows for an open exchange of differing ideas. No one is afraid to voice a dissenting opinion. Even when differences of opinion persist, there are no feelings of resentment or frustration that linger on either side. Everyone feels heard and respected and is willing to work with the plan, even if they disagree with it.

Example: Tiffany is a sales operations manager at a large corporation. She calls a meeting with her reps to discuss ways to meet their team quota moving forward. Half of the team recommends that individual reps should have more leeway to provide discounts to prospects. The other half thinks that they should focus on upselling to existing customers. After a lively debate in which each team member expresses the reasons for his or her view, Tiffany thanks everyone for their feedback, and tells them that she will propose a renewed focus on upselling to senior management. However, she will also keep the idea of more flexibility for discounts in mind. Everyone leaves satisfied.

The Elements of an Unproductive Conflict

•  An unproductive conflict is frequently repetitive and doesn’t lead to any resolution or plan of action. The core of the conflict is often not about how to solve a particular problem, but is usually motivated by previously hurt feelings. Instead of attacking the issue, parties to an unproductive conflict often attack each other (especially their opponent’s personality and behavior).

•  An unproductive conflict is often one-sided, and may even involve a measure of intimidation and bullying. People may shy away from offering their true opinions out of fear of harsh criticism or ridicule. In the end, an unproductive conflict leaves everyone feeling more angry and upset than they did before.

Example: Jane is the CEO of a mid-size company. After examining the latest sales figures, she calls a team meeting. She begins by berating her sales team for not performing up to expectations, and demands that they provide an explanation for not meeting their quota. When one of the sales reps mentions that they’ve been having problems navigating their new CRM platform, Jane quickly cuts the employee off and states that CRM issues have nothing to do with the issue at hand. Her other reps remain silent, and the meeting concludes with everyone, Jane included, feeling angry and frustrated.

Leadership and Productive Conflict

As you can probably discern from the examples given above, leadership plays a key role in determining whether the workplace is a safe haven for productive conflict or not. In fact, promoting and engaging in productive conflict is especially vital for leaders who want to solve problems without burning bridges.

In many cases, leaders set the expectation that team members will actively engage in productive conflict with one another (within proper boundaries, of course). Leaders often have to coach their team members on what productive conflict is, what it looks like, and how to successfully engage in it. When you set the tone for your team by word and example, they’ll likely fall into line and eventually embrace productive conflict as another tool to help them do their job better.

The Benefits of Healthy Conflict

There are several benefits that you and your team can gain from engaging in healthy, rancor-free conflict. For example:

• Productive conflict can often lead to solutions that wouldn’t have been considered before.

• It can actually help to unify a team and build mutual trust and respect.

• It can encourage each team member to become a better, more active listener.

• It can help reticent employees to express themselves freely and clearly.

• It can promote a culture of flexibility, creativity, and inclusivity. 

Of course, the dynamics of your team may be quite different from that of another team in another organization. Perhaps your team has traditionally navigated conflict in a less effective way or tried to avoid it altogether. Whatever the case may be, it’s never too late to adopt a new, even healthier approach to conflict management and resolution.

Don’t Avoid Conflict; Use It!

In summary, the key differences between productive and unproductive conflict are:

• What is achieved (productive conflict leads to a solution, whereas unproductive conflict leads nowhere)

• How the participants feel afterward (productive conflict allows people to feel heard and respected; unproductive conflict only results in more anger and frustration)

If you embrace productive conflict and proactively look for ways to eliminate unproductive conflict, then your team will become more cohesive and effective, and your business will grow.


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