The workplace is a blending of cultures, minds, ambitions, and understanding. As people with various backgrounds and opinions try to reach mutual goals, there are bound to be times when “blending” will get difficult and opinions will turn into disagreements and inter-office conflict.
Daniel Dana, president of Dana Mediation Institute, is an internationally renowned conflict mediator known as the Conflict Doctor. He defines workplace conflict in the following way:
A condition between two people in which at least one feels angry, resentful, hostile, etc., towards the other… and which leads to disruption of effective work and morale in the workplace.
As with most definitions, several important aspects are packed under the surface:
- “At least one feels angry” — Just because two people see something as a conflict does not make it a conflict. One person’s dissatisfaction is sufficient to create a conflict situation because the relationship is disrupted.
- “Angry, resentful, hostile” — These are strong, emotional words. Conflict always has an emotional component.
- “Disruption of effective work and morale in the workplace” — Healthy conflict in an organization helps teams to reach new levels of performance, but unhealthy conflict disrupts effective work and more, and can profoundly affect a company’s bottom line.
Based on this definition, a definite difference exists between a conflict and a disagreement. Sure, all conflicts are disagreements, but not all disagreements are conflicts. We might “agree to disagree” fairly calmly and move forward from there. We may even disagree vehemently and with passionate emotion. When progress halts because of a disagreement, that is when it becomes an unhealthy conflict that we need to address. Unhealthy conflicts are disagreements that involve strong emotions and that disrupt productivity and forward momentum.
Conversely, healthy conflicts are a normal part of successful organizations. It is through healthy conflict that we hone and refine ideas, solve problems, and innovate. We can engage in extensive arguments, but as long as the communication between disagreeing parties remains open, honest, and transparent, that is a good thing. We can express anger and deep emotions, but as long as we don’t engage in personal attacks, that is perfectly acceptable.
What matters most are the results of the conflict. If work is thriving, creativity is blooming, and people are turning their creative energy into productivity, that is the sign of healthy conflict and organization. If resentment and hostility are growing, productivity is grinding to a halt, and morale is low, the organization may have a serious case of unhealthy conflict. As leaders, we must understand the distinctive factors that dictate healthy and unhealthy conflicts, and know when to sit back and when to step in.