Conflict in the Workplace: Conflict can be positive and productive

Aug. 8, 2005
When you think of the word “conflict,” do you generally picture shouting matches, anger, icy stares, or nerve-shattering stressful confrontations?

When you think of the word “conflict,” do you generally picture shouting matches, anger, icy stares, or nerve-shattering stressful confrontations? Some formal definitions of the word “conflict” are:

1. Competitive or opposing action of incompatibles: antagonistic state or action (as of divergent ideas, interests or persons)
2. Mental struggle resulting from incompatible or opposing needs, drives, wishes, or external or internal demands
3. Hostile encounter: fight, battle, war
4. The pursuit of incompatible goals, such that gains to one side come about at the expense of the other By these definitions, conflict is a bad situation. It is generally viewed as negative, having discord, disharmony, and hostility. Necessarily, someone is going to win and someone is going to lose — the classic win/lose scenario.

But not all conflict is bad! Conflict is always difficult, but it leads to growth and change, which is good. No one likes pain, but pain wakes you up and tells you when to react. If you had your hand on a stove, and you couldn’t feel the pain to know to remove it, you’d be in big trouble! If there were no painful stimulus, you would get burned. It’s been said that conflict is like a tea bag: You have no idea how strong it can be until it gets into hot water.

Some level of organizational conflict is actually desirable — it’s not always dysfunctional. When conflict exists, it generally indicates commitment to organizational goals, because the players are trying to come up with the best solution. This in turn promotes challenge, heightens individual regard to the issues, and increases effort. This type of conflict is necessary. Without it, an organization will stagnate!

When conflict does occur, the results may be positive or negative, depending upon how those involved choose to approach it.

If you can approach conflict positively, it can:
• Improve the quality of decisions
• Stimulate involvement in the discussion
• Arouse creativity and imagination
• Facilitate employee growth
• Increase movement toward goals
• Create energetic climate
• Build more synergy and cohesion among teams
• Foster new ideas, alternatives, and solutions
• Test positions and beliefs

If conflict is approached negatively, it can:
• Be destructive and uncontrollable
• Create ineffective working groups
• Cause productivity to suffer
• Reduce the exchange of ideas and information
• Develop animosities
• Break down communication
• Diminish trust and support

Positive conflict

Positive conflict is very useful in group deliberations. When faced with a conflict, most healthy groups will look for more information to resolve it. Because the disagreement was expressed, a more thorough investigation will be conducted. When the group makes a decision, it will be based on additional information that probably wouldn’t have been obtained had the conflict not occurred.

Even though some of the feelings generated by conflict may be negative, disagreement indicates involvement in the discussion. A good argument may be an effective antidote to apathy! You know the old expression, “Let’s argue so we can make up.”

So how can you make conflict positive within your group? When resolving conflicts, focus on finding ways that will allow all people to “win.” Usually, conflict results in one side “winning” at the expense of another. Conflict becomes unhealthy when it is avoided or approached on a win/lose basis, where one side is the winner and one is the loser. Your responsibility as a manager or team member is to ensure that this situation doesn’t occur, because it has negative effects for both the winner and loser.

Winners and losers

The winner often becomes complacent, casual, and playful (the “fat and happy” state). The winning group develops a low concern for work and task accomplishment. The winner feels that winning has confirmed the negative stereotype of the “enemy” group. There is no incentive to learn how to improve intergroup operations.

The loser is not always convinced that they lost, and tension will become higher than before the conflict. The loser tries to find someone or something to blame and often distorts the reality of losing. Losers may say, “The boss didn’t understand our solution.” The losing group tends to splinter and unresolved conflict surfaces.

However, the losing group is more ready to work harder than the winning team and tends to learn a lot about itself. Once the loss is accepted, the losers may become more cohesive and effective.

Someone does not have to win or lose! Groups must cooperate and work together to be effective. This type of group behavior is known as integrative. A group should try to integrate individual goals into the group goal by following these guidelines:
1. Attempt to pursue a common goal rather than individual goals
2. Openly and honestly communicate with other people
3. Do not manipulate others
4. Do not use threats or bluffs to achieve goals
5. Try to understand personal needs and the needs of others accurately
6. Evaluate ideas and suggestions on their own merits
7. Attempt to find solutions to problems
8. Strive for group cohesiveness

So if one of your peers calls you a “turkey” during a heated meeting, how would you react? If a high level of individual and group trust exists, and you don’t take the comment personally, the group can grow through the confrontation. Group members learn that they can confront even personality clashes and work together as a group to solve them. The group that fights together stays together.

Conflict should be managed, however, before it degenerates to verbal assault and irreparable damage to individual egos. But conscious efforts on your part to avoid disagreement may produce feelings of tension and anxiety as you try to watch what you say. Carefully wording statements to avoid conflict restrains group participation and results in frustration. As group members tend to edit their thoughts before communicating with others, the feeling of group unity is adversely affected. The solution: Talk more, not less.