Conflict is Good!

A colleague of mine recently said that while she does not like conflict on her projects, she does realize it is a sign that people are engaged and passionate about what the team is trying to carry out.  In HBR’s blog, The Right Way to Fight, the author states “Differences of opinion at work are inevitable and often integral to innovation, problem-solving, and performance improvement.”  So if the author is right about the value of conflict, then why are so many people, like my colleague, uneasy with the idea of managing conflict?  In this post I am going to review some pitfalls and benefits of managing conflict, as well as some techniques to help you in this space.  Take a quick moment to laugh at this Monty Python clip… I hope this isn’t how your conflict management sessions go.

Why So Much Conflict in Today’s Organizations?

All too often, the heat of the discussion overtakes the cause & understanding of why there is conflict in the first place.  In Harvard Business Review’s Podcast, How to Manage Conflict, Gill Corkindale talks about 2 main reasons conflict is on the rise…

  • The shift from regional, hierarchical reporting structures to global, matrix organizations is one key reason she states.  Diversity isn’t the issues, but the training of leadership to effectively manage virtual teams & employees with different view points, experiences, etc is the issue.
  • The second issue Corkindale mentions is competition.  In today’s economy, resources are thin and the pressure to bring value (management and team members) is greater then ever.  Managers are jockeying for budget, team members are working more hours to complete the assignments, and so on.

Benefits of Conflict

If employee turnover is relatively high and there is a pool of unemployed talent, why should a manager care about conflict so much?  “If John Doe doesn’t like it, he can leave and I will get someone else.”  Aside from the costs associated with on boarding, ramping, etc there are some benefits to conflict.  In this post, the author discusses a number of benefits to conflict…

  1. Conflict motivates employees to work harder and often talents come to the forefront during these circumstances.
  2. Conflict can provide a constructive outlet to address some psychological needs like aggression, esteem, etc
  3. Conflict often leads to more innovative ideas
  4. Working through conflict and overcoming often helps develop long-lasting relationships.

What are the Common Pitfalls?

The majority of resources in this post have shared reasons for ineffective conflict management…

  1. Avoidance – So many people are uncomfortable with the idea of conflict, they simply avoid it.  Maybe they can move some folks around or they think the project is almost over and simply never address the issues.
  2. Personalizing – Too often, the discussions shift from the technique or approach and it gets personal.  People become insulted, feel attacked, etc.  Corkindale makes the point that if people avoid conflict the issues fester, the gap widens, and the conflict shifts from task-focused to relational-focused.
  3. Leveraging technology (email, chat, etc) – During times of conflict, a persons tone and facial expressions are key to the discussion and successful understanding between the parties.  Do not try to resolve conflict via an email.

Okay, so how do I succeed?

From on overall organizational view, this Wall Street Journal blog suggests implementing the following:

  1. Don’t underestimate the importance of a good personality fit during the interviewing stage.
  2. Ensure management enforces organizational rules across the board.  Favoritism creates underlying issues that lead to conflict.
  3. Focus on training leadership resources.  Gill Corkindale referenced lack of training in the IdeaCast mentioned above and the guys over at Manager-Tools state lack of training in their podcast, Resolving Conflict.
  4. Provide an outlet for your employees to vent…anonymous email.  (Some organizations leverage an Ombudsman)

From a more personal view, take some pointers from the following resources: Project Smart’s post The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Dialgue,’s How To Deal With Conflict at Work, and HBR’s The Right Way to Fight

  1. Don’t assume you can’t fix it.  Be proactive, no action is worse.
  2. Be prepared…Know your position and theirs
  3. Have a picture in your mind…not of changing them, but one that gets results while preserving the relationship and minimizes damage.
  4. Listen!  Even if you interrupt to correct a clear misinterpretation, it is viewed as combative from the other side of the table. Letting the other party express their position will go a long way to show you are open.  Another post says listening allows you to find other clues into their position, misunderstanding, etc.  These clues can actually help your case, but If you are not listening then you will miss it.
  5. Prioritize & stick to the heart of the matter.  Don’t let pet peeves and other minor issues derail success.
  6. Think win-win.  Know what you must have, as well as where you can give in and offer as a ‘peace offering’.
  7. Sharpen the saw…develop your skills in low-stakes situations.  Practice is the key.
  8. Build relationships so you know why people are taking a position and how your solution could potentially help them.
  9. Develop multiple techniques to resolving conflict.

I hope you were able to take something from this post and would love to hear about some of your favorite techniques and/or pitfalls for Conflict Management.  Have a great week!

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5 thoughts on “Conflict is Good!

  1. Jim, in the interest of no conflict I am now deleting your comment. LOL! I am so kidding.

    I am very honored you took the time to read this post and even more so to have joined the conversation and add your expertise.

    Yes, the title states “Conflict is Good!” but I think the main point is that conflict is going to happen and you can get something from it. For someone to think they can avoid conflict or that it resolves itself is not a conflict management strategy. Would it be better to never have conflict? Of course. However, if one is going to be in a leadership position they need to recognize conflict and have a game plan to resolve and even leverage some of its energy.

    Do you have some suggestions with regards to best practices in conflict management? I would love to hear. Again, thank you so much for your post!


  2. I’m sorry, but at the risk of creating conflict, I must disagree with two points. Most of your post is quite right, and another part would be with a word change. Conflict is different from “confrontation,” and conflict is not good. A formal review of 30 studies (citation below) showed that both relationship and task conflict hurt teams. My review of more than 500 teamwork studies and experience with formal team development agree. “Groupthink” is bad, too, but conflict is not the answer: open debate gains all the benefits the CIO post mentions without the damage of conflict.

    The advice on personality from the WSJ blog has no scientific backing. Personality is too situational and, per the research literature, personality effects on team performance are too complex and ill-understood to make safe predictions about “fit.” A reading of the literature shows there are just too many variables–if you focus on one set of traits you want, you may well be harming other portions of team performance depending on various factors of your team (size, type, task, etc.). I wish the science was further along, but for now all we have is anecdotal (and therefore subjective) evidence.

    The study I mentioned is: De Dreu, C., and L. Weingart (2003), “Task Versus Relationship Conflict, Team Performance, and Team Member Satisfaction: A Meta-Analysis,” Journal of Applied Psychology 88(4): 741.

  3. Great point Laura. I have a very difficult time carrying this over to my personal life. Heading over to your link now.

  4. I was just reading something else about this today. A really important thing to remember is how different people communicate. Miscommunicating can cause conflict! Some people want the whole story; some people want bullet points. Also, how we act under stress (which is 24/7 at work) affects how other people see us. See for more.

  5. Hi Kelly,

    I’ve published an article a while ago exploring the differences between constructive and destructive conflicts. I hope that you will have the chance to take a look.

    You article is excellent and I would like to publish it on PM Hut, please either email me or contact me through the “Contact Us” form on the PM Hut site in case you’re OK with this.

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