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What is Healthy Conflict?

Too many leaders want to avoid conflict whenever possible, yet healthy conflict is a productive and inevitable part of the workplace.
Emily Koelsch
Contributing Writer

Conflict is often seen as negative and unhealthy, but that doesn’t have to be reality. The truth is that conflict is inevitable, especially in the workplace. The challenge for leaders shouldn’t be avoiding conflict but instead figuring out how to make conflict positive, healthy, and productive.

Psychologist and author Nate Regier explained in his book Conflict Without Casualties that conflict is “simply the energy created by the gap between what we want and what we’re experiencing.” Using this definition, the real question becomes: “How are we going to use that energy?”

The best leaders understand that not only is conflict inevitable, it’s also beneficial for their organization. Productivity expert Laura Stack noted that “When a conflict exists, it generally indicates a commitment to organizational goals because the players are trying to come up with the best solution.” Stack goes on to assert that “this type of conflict is necessary. Without it, an organization will stagnate.”

The key for leaders and their teams is to appreciate the benefits of conflict, understand ways to foster healthy conflict, and then build a culture that embraces this type of conflict.

Benefits of Healthy Conflict

Conflict, even healthy conflict, is uncomfortable for most people. As a result, to fully commit to embracing conflict — and to encourage your team to do the same — it’s important to first appreciate the benefits that come from this type of workplace culture.

Conflict in the workplace leads to more creativity, better work outcomes, more engaged employees, increased opportunities for growth, and a more inclusive workplace.

“Conflict allows the team to come to terms with difficult situations, to synthesize diverse perspectives, and to make sure solutions are well-thought-out,” said author and communications firm 3COze Inc. co-founder Liane Davey. “Conflict is uncomfortable, but it is the source of true innovation and also a critical process in identifying and mitigating risks.”

Interestingly, despite the discomfort associated with conflict, research has shown that teams that encourage healthy conflict have happier and more invested employees. Rather than feeling like they’re walking on eggshells or need to be cautious to avoid disagreements, these employees feel confident in their role and their ability to openly share ideas, thoughts, and opinions.

This environment also encourages diversity and inclusion as it ensures all voices and perspectives are welcome. In “Diversity’s New Frontier: Diversity of Thought,” authors Anesa Parker, Carmen Medina, and Elizabeth Schill explain that “While homogenous groups are more confident in their performance, diverse groups are often more successful in completing tasks.” They advise leaders to resist the “instinctual urge to avoid conflict” and to reject “the idea that consensus is an end in and of itself.”

While homogenous groups are more confident in their performance, diverse groups are often more successful in completing tasks.

Anesa Parker, Carmen Medina, and Elizabeth Schill

The bottom line is: healthy conflict leads to better ideas, happier employees, and better business outcomes.

How to Promote Healthy Conflict

Building a culture that encourages healthy conflict is not easy, but there are several things leaders can do to establish this type of work environment. The goal for managers should be to create a culture where it’s natural for team members to disagree, debate, and share their opinions.

As a first step, leaders should model this behavior. This means being open, asking questions, listening, and being compassionate. It also means asking for others’ opinions before sharing your own. Once the team expresses their differing opinions, leaders should respectfully disagree and encourage a healthy debate.

Another first step is giving every team member a voice. Go out of your way to ask for different opinions and to encourage everyone on your team to share his or her ideas. Once they do, be respectful and compassionate but voice any disagreement you may have. The more you model the practice of healthy conflict, the more it will become part of how your team functions.

More systematic ways to promote conflict include having regular office debates on pressing issues, promoting friendly competitions, and encouraging your team members to be disruptive in all their work. The simple act of asking employees to think of different and new ways to accomplish their tasks gives them the message that it’s okay to challenge the status quo and establishes that different ideas are encouraged.

Conclusion

Conflict isn’t always easy, but healthy conflict leads to better business decisions, more collaboration, increased innovation, and better outcomes. As a result, leaders should work to build a culture where productive conflict is encouraged. By modeling the practice, giving all team members a voice, and encouraging disruptive thinking, leaders can help their team embrace conflict and the many benefits that it provides.

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