Create Meaningful Conflict to Increase Productivity and Improve Relationships


More often than not, conflict is described as something to avoid or at least resolve quickly in the workplace. Conflict can indeed be detrimental to morale and even productivity in a company, and comes in many forms. In “5 Common Workplace Conflicts Every Small Business Will Encounter”, Angela Farrell describes the five types of conflict commonly seen in an office as: leadership conflicts, interdependency-based conflict, work style differences, cultural-based dissension, and personality clashes.

Conflict Can Be Healthy

Many types of conflict in the workplace should be minimized and resolved as quickly as possible, but what people don’t talk about is the danger of creating a workplace devoid of healthy, meaningful conflict. Poorly carried out conflict often ends with hurt feelings, defensiveness, and fear of future conflict. When managed correctly, however, conflict can help people generate new ideas, make better decisions, and accomplish more.

Susan Heathfield goes so far so say in “10 Tips to Encourage Meaningful, Needed Conflict at Work” that a work environment encouraging people to disagree and discuss different ideas is in fact a healthier one. Healthfield explains that one of the most important things a company can do is to encourage healthy conflict by setting the expectation that differences of opinion are valued, and to create a group norm that disagreements will be treated respectfully and occur without personal attacks.  

Creating an Atmosphere of Meaningful Conflict

Creating an atmosphere of meaningful conflict that does not go too far and damage relationships can be tricky. Dr. David Javitch lays out some ideas in his article “Conflict in the Workplace” that can help upper management view conflict in a new way.  He explains that how employees deal with conflict generally reflects the way that the company as a whole deals with conflict. If the company avoids it at all costs, so will the employees. If conflict is seen as something that can have positive outcomes, then the rest of the company will too.

Javitch goes on to describe a system of looking at conflict that he gleaned from Stephen Robbins’ book Organizational Behavior.  He says to look at conflict and the conflict’s potential for productivity as either low, medium or high.

Low Conflict and Low Potential: This combination describes an atmosphere in which the company avoids conflict as much as possible, and this leads to lower potential among employees.

High Conflict and Low Potential: In this scenario, there is a negative level of conflict in the company, causing employees to feel out of control and ineffective.

Medium Conflict and High Potential: This last combination shows an environment in which employees and management can give conflicting ideas, problem-solve, disagree, and work through ideas to find solutions. In this scenario, the company must have expectations in which conflicts are not personal and the people whose ideas are not chosen must be willing to jump on to the opposing “team” and move forward with the plan (as opposed to refusing to do it another way). If guidelines are not understood and followed, a healthy, meaningful conflict can quickly turn into a conflict with negative outcomes.

It’s time to start shifting the conversation from, how can we eliminate conflict in our company, to how can we encourage meaningful conflict and create an environment that respects different ideas and opinions? Conflict is a fact of life, it’s time that we direct it and create more positive outcomes.