Mind of the Manager

What works and what doesn't in the workplace

The Upside to Workplace Conflict

Difficult though it may be, conflict can be a pathway to something better.

While most people dislike and avoid conflict at work, it can also have tangible benefits. I was thinking about this subject lately, as I was being interviewed about “Managing Conflict at Work” for the Matt Townsend radio program - and I was consistently pushing toward the negative in our conversation, as he was consistently pushing toward the positive.

The discussion made me view workplace conflict in a slightly different light, and the more I began to consider it, the more I began to see certain beneficial aspects.

As most everyone who has worked knows, it's a fertile breeding ground for conflict. Compensation, recognition, feelings of personal worth, team dynamics… all of these (and conservatively about a thousand more) are subjects that easily yield conflict. As a manager, I often used to feel: Conflict is the currency of management.

Though conflict is usually at least temporarily unpleasant, it’s by no means all bad; in fact it can also be the pathway to something better. In that spirit, here are four tangible upsides:

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You learn not to be a conflict avoider – As a manager, this is a critical skill. There’s so darn much conflict, you can’t do your job effectively without confronting it directly. And there’s a useful carryover to life outside management. How many personal relationships founder on conflict that is unexpressed, ignored or outright destructive? Learning not to avoid conflict but to manage it constructively pays generous dividends - well beyond the business environment.

Dirty laundry gets aired and (at least sometimes) clean – Conflict among individuals and teams force contentious issues into the light of day. Rather than festering below the surface, where subtle grievances and badwill undermine both personal performance and group dynamics, conflict that is openly aired has at least a (fighting) chance of being resolved. Generally a better outcome for all parties than lingering resentment

It can spur innovation - Constructive resolutions of workplace conflict can become a pathway to improvement. A study I recently came across, conducted in 2008 by the organizational development firm CPP, concluded that “increased innovation and higher performance” can be a substantive benefit. This is not completely surprising, as open workplace conflict produces bursts of activity, and increased activity can yield innovative results.

Worst enemies can end up best friends (or at least colleagues who speak to each other) - The best way I can illustrate this is anecdotally. As a manager, I developed what I thought was a reasonably creative tactic: When personal conflicts between two individuals on my teams became too intense, I gave the two of them free lunch passes and forced them to have lunch together. No one else could be present, so all they could do was talk, face to face, and (hopefully) communicate.  How did this work out? I only did it a few times (I came upon the idea in the latter stages of my management career), but the results were generally positive. In these situations conflicts were diminished, and the employees involved became civil colleagues if not exactly “bffs.”

Net-net, this is naturally not meant to conclude workplace conflict is mostly positive. It would be naïve not to acknowledge that it's painful, destructive, disruptive and costly to individuals and organizations. But if we view conflict as an inevitable element of human interaction at work, and we attempt to constructively manage it rather than avoid or eliminate it, that’s a first step to making its considerable energy work for us rather than against us.

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Victor Lipman recently retired from the corporate world after 25 years with one of America's largest life insurance companies. He writes about management from a psychological perspective.

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