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Most of us intuitively know that having honest and constructive dialogue can benefit our workplace relationships and organizational outcomes.
Yet, few of us know how to effectively move into this space without feeling confrontational.
For others to feel encouraged to speak up, it turns out leaders must demonstrate confidence in their own abilities and actively embrace constructive conflict.
To do so, you must create an environment that’s safe for interpersonal risk-taking before you can expect people to speak up.
This article will explain what constructive conflict is, how to engage in constructive conflict, and how leaders can prevent or stop destructive conflict between their employees.
What is constructive conflict?
Most of us have experienced conflict in the workplace at some point, whether we were directly involved in it or simply a witness to some conflict between colleagues.
Workplace conflict is detrimental not only to the parties involved but to the whole team. It has a negative impact on employee productivity.
Yet workplace conflict is common, affecting 26% of employees in the last year.
Many of us tend to think of conflict as destructive — and it can be when it leads to anger, frustration, antagonism, and negative outcomes.
But, according to OSU psychologist Dr. Louise Douce, conflict can be positive when it:
- Helps people see different perspectives and ideas
- Leads to greater engagement and collaboration
- Helps to clarify or reassess issues
- Strengthens interpersonal relations
To understand how workplace conflict can be constructive, let’s take a look at what causes it.
What causes workplace conflict?
Workplace conflict can take many forms. It can arise from disagreements over work, personality clashes, harassment, bullying, and more.
In many cases, such as bullying or harassment, conflict is destructive, and management should take such cases seriously.
But, in other cases, conflict can lead to positive outcomes if managed correctly. Let’s take a look at some examples.
Examples of destructive conflict
An interpersonal conflict between two teammates: This may be as simple as a clash of personalities or repeated behavior that leads to conflict, such as regularly stealing someone’s lunch or making noise while someone is trying to concentrate.
A discrimination, harassment, or bullying situation: Leaders must be swift to identify such situations and intervene as soon as possible.
Examples of constructive conflict
A creative conflict: This could be something like a brainstorming meeting. This generally leads to constructive discussion and debate.
A challenge to the status quo: Organizations that learn to listen to those not in decision-making positions benefit from their innovative ideas.
Modeling constructive conflict as a leader
As a leader, you may be wondering how to create a working environment that encourages employees to engage in constructive conflict — and provide them with the tools to do so.
This type of environment doesn’t always develop organically, so you’ll want to be aware of and consciously avoid the potential pitfalls by focusing on how you’re showing up yourself.
Ethan Burris's research uncovered that leaders might undermine their efforts to get people to challenge the status quo by giving lower performance reviews as a form of retaliation.
He also found leaders with low managerial self-efficacy are “less likely to solicit input, leading to lower levels of employee voice.”
You must create an environment that’s safe for interpersonal risk-taking.
Social learning theory suggests that individuals learn through observation and modeling. To model constructive communication and have it take hold in your organizations, you must embrace vulnerability by initiating this behavior yourself.
Many of us have successfully progressed in our careers while sidestepping invitations for vulnerability. But at what cost? The opportunity cost of choosing not to share our viewpoints can involve:
- The loss of diverse contributions for the organization
- The loss of feeling truly valued as an individual
Learning to model constructive conflict communication skills can pay off by making you a more effective leader and contributing to a more open and inclusive culture.
1: Ask yourself how you feel about conflict
“I’ve lived through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened.” – Mark Twain
How do you experience your viewpoint being challenged?
To many people, it feels like conflict. And conflict itself can be defined and experienced in many ways.
A disagreement can be confronted (I’ll show you), it can be a constructive conversation (let’s sort this out together), or it can be a battlefield to be feared and avoided at all costs (I can’t do this).
How my clients define conflict often defines how they engage with it. And I’ve observed their experience to be highly predicated on their thoughts and emotions around conflict.
The first step is to ask yourself: how do I feel about conflict?
I’ll Show You → Let’s do this together → I can’t do this
The next step is to figure out how you landed there.
2: Check in with your emotions
Research has shown that the more positive we feel, “the more flexible and creative we are in the way that we work.”
We are built with emotions for important reasons: they provide us with important information, even in the context of workplace conflict.
Unfortunately, few of us have been taught to effectively navigate and check in with our emotions as a means of conflict resolution.
When you reflect upon past instances in which you faced someone with a differing viewpoint, what emotion was most often present for you?
- Aggressive Emotions: Distrustful, resentful, angry
- Positive Receptive Emotions: Confident, curious, optimistic
- Avoidant Emotions: fearful, vulnerable, uncertain
The optimal emotional space for a constructive conflict is in experiencing receptive positive emotions.
Research has shown that the more positive we feel, “the more flexible and creative we are in the way that we work.”
3: Check in with your story
In my coaching sessions, I’ve found that we make a lot of assumptions about what other people are thinking, and then act on those assumptions as though they are truths/facts.
And thanks to the negativity bias, our brain does a much better job of fixating on threats than seeing opportunities.
Dr. Aaron Beck, the father of cognitive therapy, has written extensively about the psychology of cognitive distortions, which play a key role in skewing our “read” of a situation and causing us to believe that what we feel “must be true.”
This can be a barrier to leaders’ willingness to engage in constructive conflict. When we try to make sense of the situation, we can create a story through a negative lens, one that influences our experience of conflict to the extremes (“I’ll show you” OR “I can’t do this”) and leads to negative outcomes.
You may be surprised to discover that we create details (perceived to be facts) about the situation that don’t even exist. Here’s an example.
Assumption: “Jane doesn’t want to run the additional data analysis because she doesn’t care about the impact on our customers; she just wants the project completed in time for her upcoming performance review.”
Truth: We don’t know why Jane disagrees with running the data analysis because we never actually asked her.
In seeking to understand your emotional state, check in with what thoughts are streaming through your mind around the situation.
I often suggest to my clients that they write their thoughts out on paper. Words seem to have more insight once we get them out of our heads.
Our thoughts create our current experience, but thoughts are just thoughts — they’re not necessarily facts or the truth.
Byron Katie’s 4 Questions are great for testing out our potentially faulty thinking.
I would suggest working through these questions for each of the thoughts you have written down.
- Is it true? (i.e., is this thought true?)
- Can you absolutely know that it’s true?
- How do you react when you believe that thought?
- Who would you be without that thought?
If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change. – Wayne Dyer
Some of us also make assumptions about how deserving we are as people to contribute to the conversation.
As a result, our inner dialogue can stream insecurities that prevent us from speaking up. “I am not a worthy enough member of the team to challenge the status quo” or “Who am I to upset the apple cart?”
In this case, it may be helpful to look outside of yourself to overcome your conflict avoidance. I find those paralyzed in speaking for themselves can ferociously assert on behalf of others.
Ask yourself — who else that I care about is being impacted?
If your teammates are also feeling overwhelmed and under-resourced to take on a new project, you may find the courage through them to voice your concerns and take on a mediation role that can help lead to a positive outcome.
4: Think win-win
Our frame of mind is key in constructive conflict management. In addition to coaching my clients to enter conversations with positive intent, I encourage them to choose a win-win mindset.
There are four common negotiation strategies that I relate to the conflict mindsets.
“I'll Show You” = You Lose, They Win, or You Win, They Lose— Where one party is out to get their way at all costs, to the detriment of the working relationship.
“I can’t do this” = You Lose, They Lose — If you choose to avoid conflict or sharing our differing views on something, you lose in having your needs go unmet, and we both lose out on the diversity of perspective.
“Let’s do this together” = Win-Win — This is where we want to be. “The aim of win-win negotiations (or mindsets) is to find a solution that is acceptable to both parties, and leaves both parties feeling that they’ve won, in some way, after the event (discussion).”
We can attain win-win outcomes when we believe in their possibility and can best navigate them when we come prepared.
Fred Kofman recommends coming into a conversation with a “Best Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement,” or BATNA.
Having a clear understanding of your BATNA is key, but Kofman says you should always be working to improve it.
In advance of the constructive conflict conversation, try to think up as many possible outcomes that would meet your needs and interests, as well as those of the other party.
Ask yourself, “what else would help me to feel more aligned or onboard with this issue?”
This worksheet can be helpful in preparing for a win-win mindset.
5: Role model desired behaviors
After you’ve taken the time to check in with yourself and have done your homework to prepare for a win-win approach, set an intention to role model the positive behaviors you believe will lead to a constructive conversation.
Respectful engagement — Engage in a constructive way that conveys the value and self-worth of others.
Trusting — Express yourself in a way that shows people that you believe they care, are dependable, and will meet your expectations to the best of their abilities.
If at any point you feel the conversation has derailed too far from your intended constructive conversation into a zone of uncomfortable confrontation, voice your concern and respectfully request a short breather or to reschedule.
6: Ensure alignment: recap your perception of the conversation
Take five or 10 minutes at the end of your constructive conversation for each of you to recap your understanding, agreed-upon decisions, and any next steps around actions, accountabilities, or follow-up required.
You may also want to appoint one person to send a short email of the recap.
If your review uncovers a continued misalignment or dispute, openly discuss what options you would be open to resume bridging the gap.
7: Show appreciation
If you assessed the conversation as successfully constructive, thank your teammate for their contribution.
You may even want to “praise to the back” (the opposite of stabbing in the back) and let others know about the great constructive conversation you had.
Praise to the back will eventually echo back to your teammate.
8: Create a culture of conversation
As leaders, it’s important for us to recognize the role we play in creating a culture where our teammates feel comfortable contributing to conversations — especially when they are putting forth a diverse viewpoint.
Conflict can decrease productivity and affect the organization’s output and performance — making conflict management an essential leadership skill.
Leaders must act swiftly to address conflict as soon as it’s reported or identified. This will prevent escalation and avoid any legal action that might have come from it.
Good conflict management starts with having an employee code of conduct that all new recruits are required to read and sign as part of the onboarding process.
Your organization should also have a conflict resolution policy and protocols to follow in case of harassment or discrimination, including disciplinary measures.
If the conflict involves your direct reports, step in as soon as you realize there is an issue. Often, mediation is all that’s needed to resolve a dispute.
In this case, the steps above apply: maintaining a positive attitude, communicating respectfully, and looking for a win-win are all key to stopping a destructive conflict.
As a leader, it’s important to bear in mind that personality clashes are sometimes unavoidable. In this case, work with both parties to find an acceptable solution.
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Not all conflict is bad
While cases such as discrimination and harassment are a cause for concern, in most cases, conflict can be constructive and lead to positive outcomes if leaders approach it with a positive attitude.
Even a destructive conflict situation can be turned around using the right conflict management approach.
I hope, after reading this article, you feel confident that this is a skill you can develop. But if you need support in creating a culture of conversation within your organization, get in touch with one of our expert coaches today.