Do you define conflict in the workplace with incidents of hostility, simmering resentment, or words spoken in anger? Some talk about verbal “arm-wrestling” in the conference room where the opponents are also close colleagues, or ferocious disagreements that produce outstanding new approaches and ideas. All of these can accurately be described as conflict situations; the difference is that some of the situations are unhealthy and others are healthy.
Conflict that Breaks Your Business
Internationally renowned conflict mediator Daniel Dana has one of the simplest yet most comprehensive definitions of unhealthy conflict. He states that such a conflict is “a condition between two people in which at least one feels angry, resentful, hostile, etc., toward the other … and which leads to disruption of effective work and morale in the workplace.” This is a great definition because it reminds us of three things:
- First, only one person needs to be upset for there to be a conflict situation. Even if the other person is completely unaware of the tension, there is a problem.
- Second, negative emotions reside at the core of a conflict situation, not words or actions. Why? Because words and actions can be interpreted and responded to in a variety of ways. Conflict happens when the response is negative.
- Third, conflict is known by its fruit, and the fruit is rotten. Bad relationships result in a hostile atmosphere and poor output – guaranteed.
Some leaders think that unhealthy conflict can be tolerated, ignored, or swept under the rug. It can’t. Left unaddressed, unhealthy conflict always results in festering emotions, spreading distrust, worsening morale, and decreased productivity. That is how conflict breaks your business.
Conflict that Makes Your Business
In contrast, healthy conflict is when two or more people get together and hash out a disagreement or opposing points of view. The conversation may get real and raw. It can be full of passion and intensity. Voices may be raised. Participants may go at it “hammer and tongs.”
What makes this healthy? Such a situation is healthy if it meets the following criteria:
- Everyone leaves the discussion aligned on the final decision. They may not all agree with it. Not everyone may like it. But each person is committed to making the final decision a success.
- People feel respected, not attacked, and therefore do not harbor negative emotions toward each other. They know they can trust each other and are all striving to get the best solution together.
- The results speak for themselves: positive morale, productivity, and a positive culture. Healthy conflict is good for business, plain and simple.
You can see that unhealthy conflict and healthy conflict stand in direct contrast to each other. At least one person is upset vs. everyone being in alignment; negative emotion vs. positive trust and respect; bad results vs. good results.
You have seen unhealthy conflict play out in the workplace. The volatile meeting, the personal attacks, the office politicking, the treacherous backstabbing, the scheming triangulation … it is all familiar territory. What does healthy conflict look like in practice?
Consider a retail business that has stores in five geographic locations. Over the past few quarters, it has become evident that the stores in one of the regions are consistently underperforming compared to the others.
At a leadership team meeting, the COO proposes that a portion of the budget and resources be reallocated from these stores to the highest-performing region to maintain and build on their success. The Regional Manager for this high-performing region supports this proposal (unsurprisingly!). He even suggests a bonus program for his region’s employees to further motivate them.
The Regional Manager for the underperforming region strongly objects to this reallocation plan, citing various challenges the stores face, including a tough local economy and aggressive competition. She argues that cutting resources further would only exacerbate their issues and that they need additional support and marketing efforts to turn the situation around.
The team meeting gets heated, with arguments flying around the table. Customer demographics, foot traffic, local market dynamics, sales training, productivity, marketing, commissions … everything is leveraged in this tug-of-war for company funds.
At the end of the (very long) meeting, the leadership team leaves, tired but satisfied. The final decision is to have employees from high-performing stores share best practices and on-the-job mentoring at the struggling locations. Individualized performance improvement plans will be developed for specific personnel, setting clear goals and timelines. Marketing resources will be shifted to better support the different needs of the various store locations. A small bonus budget will be set up for the highest-performing stores, with guarantees for expansion of the funds to other stores if they meet specified goals.
In the days and weeks that follow, the two Regional Managers, far from harboring negative feelings toward each other after the knock-down, drag-out session, talk about additional ways they can collaborate to improve store performance across all locations.
Aligned. Respected. Energized. That is what healthy conflict looks like – and that is why healthy conflict can make your business a success.