The statement "Conflict in the workplace can be a good thing” may sound like a crazy concept that goes against every modern management principle you have ever learnt.
The reality is, all organisations are made up of an eclectic mix of different personality types, skills, communication styles and backgrounds. As a result, some amount of conflict in the workplace is inevitable.
No company has zero conflict, it is simply not possible.
But in my view, conflict, rather the healthy form of it, is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it can be wonderful. Yep, you heard me, wonderful.
Conflict that is well managed from the top down can actually be a massive strength.
Healthy conflict can help harness different perspectives and individual strengths within organisations that often lead to better overall outcomes.
So as leaders what should we do to embrace conflict and ensure it is positive?
I get it, conflict can make people, even leaders, feel uncomfortable.
Too often we can notice conflict brewing in our teams but have a temptation to look the other way and hope is goes away all on its own.
Quite simply, this is a bad idea as one of two things are likely to happen:
A) High value employees will get fed up with the conflict and leave to find a job that makes them happier.
B) The conflict will brew, bubble and then erupt, causing a full blown crisis and long term cultural damage that can take months to repair.
Like most things in life we try and ignore, it's always a bad idea for leaders to ignore conflict in the workplace. You may feel better in the short-term just ignoring the warning signs, but you and the organisation will pay the price over the medium-long term.
In all my time in business, I recon a bunch of ‘yes people’ who are too scared to challenge the status quo is just as dangerous as a group of ego maniacs who fight to the death to prove their view is right.
The reality is, most leaders don’t have all the answers nor can they be there 24/7 to micromanage every detail so, a small dose of healthy conflict can actually be beneficial.
How are new and better ways of doing things usually invented? Well, often a pinch of healthy conflict is required to truely create innovation and challenge the status quo.
It is usually the 'middle ground' between polar different perspectives that delivers the best idea and one that leads to a positive long term transformation with organisations.
Businesses have problems, big and small, on a daily basis. Again, the perfect solution to any organisational problem is normally a mix of suggestions that, through healthy debate, can come to life.
Only by engaging in healthy conflict can employees really improve their interpersonal skills.
Healthy conflict can teach employees through trial and error, how to respectfully disagree with one another or propose a different perspective.
Improving the overall interpersonal skills of employees will deliver benefits not only internally, but will also lead to better interactions with customers and other stakeholders.
Healthy conflict can actually lead to issues and problems, that would otherwise be unnoticed, being brought to the surface early before they become major headaches.
If employees feel safe to speak up, leaders and the team in general can then work together to discuss, debate and fix problems quickly with minimal long term impact on the organisation.
By simply encouraging employees to speak up and challenge the status quo, overall commitment and 'buy in' is massively enhanced. Employees will feel valued and engaged.
So conflict is inevitable and healthy conflict can actually be beneficial. But exactly how can organisations create a culture of healthy conflict?
No conflict can be healthy without clear respect of the views of others. Leaders must set the example by respecting their employees at all times and then demand the same from employees in relation to their daily interactions between each other.
As leaders, we must create a culture that encourages everyone to openly express their views whilst feeling safe to do so. Putting down the ideas or perspectives of others must be something that is not tolerated anywhere within the organisation.
Organisations must develop a cultural understanding that winning does not exist. Rather, leaders must send the message that the goal of healthy conflict is safe expression, discussion and debate of different ideas and perspectives for the greater good.
Once the culture is set, leaders need to be ever watchful of interactions and be ready to step in if the rules are broken and conflict is moving from a healthy to unhealthy state.
An increase in the number and severity of personal "digs" or putdowns, negative comments or emotions is a sign for leaders to speak up and realign the culture. Managers must exercise their best observation skills and notice whether tension is becoming unhealthy and act.
So there you have it. Conflict can be both healthy and beneficial for organisations.
It takes careful management by leaders to create such as culture, but the benefits for the organisation can be well and truely worth the effort.
CEO & Founder