Conflict in the workplace: When is it productive?

JetPay Communications

April 23, 2019

Respectful dialogue and harmonious collaboration are essential to the success of any organization. Though the notion might seem counter intuitive, conflicts between co-workers are just as essential. Thoughtful discourse between diverse peers plays an essential role in refining good ideas, sparking innovation and dismantling unworkable concepts.

Unfortunately, it’s easy for intellectual discussions to devolve into unproductive arguments. As such, leaders should be experienced in managing workplace conflict. To develop their conflict resolution skills, executives and owners should know how to cultivate positive conflicts, understand how negative disagreements begin and take a proactive approach to problem solving.

Create an Environment Conducive to Conflict

The first challenge leaders will face in cultivating productive conflict is their employees’ natural instincts to avoid disagreements. According to research conducted by Conflict Tango, 76% of workers actually avoid interacting with colleagues because of previous negative conflict experiences.

To overcome this obstacle, managers need to create an environment where their staff feels comfortable offering their ideas and critiquing those of their colleagues. To facilitate this process, managers should let their teams know that they welcome feedback on their ideas and plans. Doing so will establish a tone of openness and honesty that can help workers relax and better access their creativity.

Similarly, in meetings, leaders should make a point of soliciting comments from everyone in the group. The simple act of giving everyone permission to express themselves can be incredibly powerful.

Be Aware of Subtle Hostility

One of the key differences between productive and unproductive conflict is hostility. Employees can become passionate when explaining and defending their ideas, so that mode of communication should be encouraged. But passionate expression should never escalate into hostility.

Personal attacks, condescension and belligerence can all have the effect of stifling quality conversation. As such, managers need to observant of their employees’ interactions and take action if certain hostile traits arise.

For instance, it’s common for employees to exhibit passive-aggressive behavior in meetings. As opposed to active hostility, passive-aggression manifests via a sullen demeanor, indirectly negativity and a quiet but consistent resistance to assuming responsibility.

Conversely, employees with an excess of aggression can derail productive discussions with domineering behavior. People with dominant personalities typically exhibit high energy, directness, impatience and a lack of consideration for others.

Thankfully, there’s a simple conflict management solution for employees who demonstrate either of these problematic behaviors. First, make notes of specific things the employee says or does that can be considered passive-aggressive or domineering. After the group conference ends, call the worker in for a private meeting. Politely but firmly outline the problem, cite examples of their behavior and explain why needs to change.

In many cases, a calm but firm confrontation will bring a swift end the disruptive behavior. Oftentimes, people simply don’t realize how they are coming off to others. Nevertheless, it’s a good idea to make notes of incidences of unproductive behavior to see if any patterns emerge.

Utilize Proactive Conflict Resolution Strategies

When it becomes clear that a conflict between co-workers has become unproductive and personal, it’s important for managers to take a proactive stance. Allowing interpersonal animosity to fester can have a significant negative impact on an organization’s finances.

As noted in this Entrepreneur article, the average American worker spends an average of 2.8 hours engaging in a negative conflict with a team member, an activity that costs US industry $359 million annually.

Luckily, there are ways to reduce this number. Here are a few different proactive conflict resolution strategies that may help:

Mindful Conflict Framing: When discussing a dysfunctional conflict with a staffer, don’t frame the issue reactively. In other words, don’t chastise an employee for past behavior. Doing so risks evoking a defensive response that will only delay the problem-solving process. Instead, take a more positive and proactive approach. Identify the conflict, listen to the worker’s perspective, explain why the animosity is problematic and take steps to resolve the situation.

Make Positivity a Priority: It’s crucial for managers and employees to understand that conflict mediation is not a punitive process. The goal isn’t to assign blame and mete out punishments — the goal is to reach an outcome that is beneficial to all involved. To that end, mediators should set a positive tone and strive to ensure that workers exit the process feeling good about themselves and their jobs.

Try Role Reversal: Even the most professional employees can fall into unproductive behavior patterns when they become engrossed in dysfunctional conflict. To help them regain their equilibrium, ask team members to put themselves in the place of the co-worker they’re having issues with. Though it might sound simplistic, asking staffers to change their perspective can go a long way in fostering the empathy necessary for productive conflict.

Employ Quality Talent Management Software: No matter how skilled or experienced, managers can sometimes encounter intractable interpersonal conflicts. In those situations, it’s sometimes necessary to reassign team members, issue corrective actions or begin employee separation.

However, with the right tools, managers can even be proactive in their approach to resolving purely destructive conflicts. By utilizing talent management software, leaders can monitor interpersonal conflicts, track negative behavior patterns, loop in human resources and collaborate with other managers. With the support of an extensive, interactive Human Capital Management software, you will have the backup you need to manage any type of conflict.

Contact us today to learn other ways to your company can more effectively manage its human capital.

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