Why Workplace Conflict Can Be Healthy

Positive conflict can spark innovation and creativity.

By Dori Meinert Apr 18, 2017

​Most of us try to avoid conflict, especially at work. At the sight of a cantankerous colleague coming down the hall, we might turn and walk the other way. Or if you disagree with your boss, you may choose not to share a valuable viewpoint. You’ve learned from experience that opposing others has negative consequences.

For HR professionals who spend much of their time mediating their organization’s “people problems,” avoiding conflict probably sounds like a great idea. 

It isn’t. Eliminating tension in the workplace isn’t feasible—and isn’t healthy for your organization in the long run. A better approach is to redirect the attention wasted on petty fighting toward a positive pursuit, experts say.

“Conflict is simply the energy created by the gap between what we want and what we’re experiencing,” says Nate Regier, a former practicing psychologist and author of Conflict Without Casualties (Berrett-Koehler, 2017). “If we define conflict as energy that’s created by the gap, then the real question is ‘How are we going to use that energy?’ ”

Negative conflict, characterized by struggling against other people, drains energy, which is costly to companies, teams and relationships. A CCP Global Human Capital report estimated the annual cost of workplace conflict in the U.S. to be $359 billion in lost time and productivity. 

But when approached in a positive way, conflict can spark innovation, trust and engagement, says Regier, chief executive officer of Next Element, a consultancy. 

The difference is what Regier calls “compassionate accountability,” which involves struggling with others through the conflict to reach an acceptable solution. (The Latin root words of “compassion” mean “to struggle with” or “to co-suffer,” he notes.)

In an online survey he conducted, 64 percent of 400 respondents indicated that they would compromise rather than make an argument for their preferred approach to avoid conflict. That’s particularly troubling for employers, he says, because “that means the best ideas, the real issues and what people are really feeling are not coming out.”

Good leaders, he says, recognize that conflict:

  • Doesn’t need to be destructive.
  • Should be leveraged rather than “managed” or “controlled.”
  • Can be handled with compassion. Taking a compassionate approach could mean more—but healthier—conflict.

When conflict occurs, leaders who understand these principles “may be uncomfortable and may be nervous, but they also are hopeful and optimistic,” he says. They believe that employees are worthwhile, capable and accountable. With that mindset, they treat people as people rather than objects.

Finally, good leaders practice compassionate accountability by balancing care, concern and kindness with goals, aspirations and standards. They don’t tell people what to do. 

Rather, they should develop three key “compassion skills” that Regier says can be used to negotiate difficult conversations. (He has adapted the compassion skills from Stephen Karpman’s Compassion Triangle, a social model of human interaction.)

If you want to promote healthy conflict, you should strive to:

Be more open. Empathize with others. Understand their motives, emotions and responses. Ask “How are you doing with this transition?” Avoid “How did that make you feel?” as if others control their emotions. Take time to listen and then validate their feelings.

Be more resourceful. Avoid sharing your ideas first. Instead, ask others for their thoughts. Disagree while respecting others’ intentions.

Be persistent. See things through with integrity and respect. Be clear about your expectations. Hold yourself and others accountable. Acknowledge when you make mistakes, and try to make it right.

Finally, recognize that conflict is always emotional, “so it’s paramount that HR professionals are able to create a safe place for people to talk about and pursue their emotional motives” and develop strategies for healthy resolution, Regier says.   

Dori Meinert is senior writer/editor for HR Magazine.

Was this article useful? SHRM offers thousands of tools, templates and other exclusive member benefits, including compliance updates, sample policies, HR expert advice, education discounts, a growing online member community and much more. Join/Renew Now and let SHRM help you work smarter.

SHRM CONNECT

Join SHRM's exclusive peer-to-peer social network

Join Today

Job Finder

Find an HR Job Near You
Post a Job

SPONSOR OFFERS

Find the Right Vendor for Your HR Needs

SHRM’s HR Vendor Directory contains over 3,200 companies

Search & Connect