The good fight: how conflict at work leads to success

Jan 08, 2020

6 mins

The good fight: how conflict at work leads to success
Marlène Moreira

Journaliste indépendante.

Consensus, compromise, coming together. These buzzwords are key in the workplace, where benevolent leadership and a culture of positivity rule —so much so that conflict has become a dirty word. This tyranny of empathy promotes seeking harmony, avoiding disagreements and setting aside ego, but what if taking this softly-softly approach and avoiding conflict had more negative consequences than you might think? What if it was okay to have a big argument from time to time to clear the air? Here, we look a little deeper into this idea.

Is all this benevolence and sentimentality too much?

The idea of confrontation is often associated with negative feelings and behaviour such as violence, anger and rejection. By extension, it is conflict itself that has become a problem. From a young age, society instills in us the importance of good manners and mutual understanding, even if it’s insincere. But rejecting conflict is also linked to fear, explains Dominique Picard, a clinical psycho-sociologist. “By staying away from conflict, we avoid endangering our emotional security. Fleeing confrontation means briefly escaping from the danger it might entail. Psychologically speaking, we do all we can to avoid conflict.

Meanwhile, in her book The Good Fight, Liane Davey discusses the tension that exists within organisations, which need conflict in order to move forward, but whose employees are trained to avoid it. Differing opinions are necessary to push forward discussions and force stakeholders to find the best solutions and resolutions. How do you launch a marketing operation without penalising the sales team? How do you divide the budget between different projects? How do you share the benefits of a new idea? These are all typical questions that naturally create friction and require solutions. If they are ignored, the financial health of the company could suffer. Yes, an organisation does need conflict to be successful.

Julie, an in-house consultant at a large retailer, told us: “One day, I saw a colleague actually meltdown over something ridiculous. I think someone had taken one of her tea bags. She screamed at her colleague before slamming the door. They were working on the same project and they seemed to get on well, but they had different ways of working. I think she had never had the nerve to tell her colleague that her way of behaving and organising things bothered her,” she said.

When you hold in deep frustration out of fear that it could turn into a conflict, the relationship can spiral and those negative feelings don’t go away. You then create what Davey calls a conflict debt. This comprises all the little pieces of tension that simmer and resurface regularly until the day when the pressure becomes unbearable and the time comes to pay interest on that debt.

Is losing your temper a blessing in disguise?

A fight a day keeps the doctor away,” as the adage doesn’t exactly go. Yet few conflicts end with files being thrown across a room or shouting obscenities at someone. Indirect, underhanded and maybe even hypocritical, latent conflict sometimes hides behind things like back slaps and big smiles. Sometimes a real argument can do some good. Anger creates a break and then a release. If it remains the exception to the rule, it can result in you being taken more seriously by your colleagues or your boss.

According to psychotherapist Antoinette Giacobbe, “The worst part about anger is not expressing it. The more you repress it, the more it can damage your health.” Conflict is a chance for you to release frustration, which is essential for your mental and physical health. It stops tension building up. Sometimes setting things straight is the only way to get back on an even keel with a colleague.

A proper row… within limits

Conflicts can nonetheless in themselves be either good or bad. Screaming at a colleague might make you feel better, but there’s also a good chance it will make matters worse. But if the situation is handled properly, a strong response can yield positive results, as long as you know how to limit collateral damage. So what exactly is a “good” row? Davey offers some tips:

Emotional vs cognitive conflict

Research studies have brought several types of conflict to light, each with different impacts and resolutions. Emotional conflict emphasises feelings and the differences between people. It usually takes the form of a personal attack, such as, “I don’t think you get what’s at stake here, Jane.” Conversely, cognitive conflict focuses on action and conversation, for example, “I think we can look at this problem differently. Do you have an idea what the impacts of this solution could be?” This gives everyone the chance to think about the problem and find a solution together. A good conflict centres around a problem, not a person. When you disagree with people rather than ideas, the conflict neutralises.

Judgement vs observation

There are methods of nonviolent communication at the core of intelligent conflict management. “You seem completely lost with this project, Paul,” is an example of counterproductive judgment that generally puts the other person on the defensive. It’s better to focus on the facts. For example, “I noticed that it took you two days to prepare this presentation, it usually only takes you half a day”, removes judgment, stops the other party from becoming defensive and lets them share their experience.

Suggesting a solution vs engaging in a discussion

It’s sometimes tempting to cut to the chase at the start of a conflict by suggesting a solution that seems fair and sensible to everyone. However, most conflicts arise from a difference in opinion about the problem, which means that starting a contentious conversation when you’re not on the same page will inevitably lead to failure. Manon works as head of communications for an insurance company. He says: “I had a boss who had an irritating habit of always speaking for everyone else. He wanted to come off as intelligent, so he always started with, ‘Yes, I understand what you’re feeling’, to end up only offering his own ideas. He was usually totally off the mark and it made him look an unpleasant manipulator.”

Ultimately, a good row is one that hasn’t actually happened. It’s one that has evolved into an intelligent discussion between people who disagree but who are looking for common ground. It’s a conflict, for sure, but one that aims to be constructive.

The benefits of a productive conflict

For most managers and employees, conflict is seen as something to avoid rather than the path to better understanding and increased involvement. Davey explains the benefits of productive conflict for an organisation to move forward.

A good conflict creates more involvement

If a new idea doesn’t elicit either frowns or objections from your colleagues, it’s quite likely that they’re not listening or they don’t care. It also means it will be more difficult to get their help when the time comes. On the contrary, locking horns over a problem can be quite productive. A good conflict shakes people up, makes them more attentive, and pushes them to seek out all the obstacles and solutions.

A good conflict is a chance to make progress

Yes, your slides are rubbish. They’re so busy and disorganised that no one can focus on the content. Words hurt, but it’s by giving and receiving intelligent feedback that you can progress as a professional, and that can’t happen without a small dose of discord. Jane, a TV news journalist, says: “I had a super-demanding boss. I was almost shaking at each presentation and I would have to systematically start them over from scratch. In retrospect, I’ve realised that his feedback was always justified and he ended up teaching me the most.”

A good conflict prevents big problems from happening

Much as you procrastinate about that morning workout, you also procrastinate about any immediate conflict. Mentally and physically, we often seem better suited to quick, intense suffering (a disagreement) rather than insidious, permanent stress and frustration (conflict debt). By letting an argument drag on, you risk adding an extra layer of frustration each day. This makes it more difficult to get to the root of the problem in order to solve it.

A good conflict encourages creativity and innovation

The best ideas happen when you question the status quo. That’s what the disruptors have done in the past decade: think Uber versus taxis, Airbnb versus hotels and so on. Conflicts are uncomfortable but necessary for identifying new solutions and potential risks, says Samuel, an organisational consultant. “I have a colleague I adore who’s become a friend, but we rarely agree on anything from the get-go and we can’t work together without raising our voices. Strangely enough, we do argue but we always manage to leave a meeting laughing. This escalation has become our little game and it’s how we find the best solutions for our projects,” he says.

A good conflict improves relationships within a team

A manager who oversees and encourages productive conflict allows everyone to explain their own way of working, which defuses tension. This creates a working atmosphere that seems more highly charged on the surface but is ultimately more peaceful.

A good conflict makes you happier

A study conducted with US and Chinese employees in China demonstrated a correlation between setting up methods for positive conflicts—those that focus on expressing frustration and finding common ground rather than avoiding conflict—and happiness in the workplace. By no longer being afraid of disagreement, it’s easier to appreciate working as part of a team.

Having an argument isn’t the end of the world. Sometimes it’s even the best thing you can do to move forward and get back on an even keel. When handled intelligently, conflict can not only help teams improve their performance, but it can also create stronger, healthier bonds. It provides a way to try and repair any damage before it’s too late. To do this, it is essential to approach conflict as an ally, not the enemy. Yes, it is possible to have “good’ arguments and then be able to move on.

Photo by WTTJ

Translated by Kalin Linsberg

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