What is Productive Conflict and How Can it Help Your Organization?

The word conflict tends to have negative connotations. In some cases, it can certainly lead to destructive thoughts and behaviors, such as arguments, insults, hurt feelings and even fractured relationships. However, conflict is an inevitable part of the workplace and it can also be productive.

In general, conflict is defined as a difference of opinions involving strong emotions. It can range from brief, explosive disputes to subtle, long-lasting issues. Conflict triggers different responses from each of us. And, while you cannot control how others respond to conflict, you can learn to control your own response. In fact, learning how you, as well as others, deal with conflict and finding productive ways to deal with it can make or break an organization.

The Toll it Takes

Unproductive conflict can be major problem in the workplace – from the toll it takes on people to tangible business costs. According to the CPP Global Human Capital report, over half of all employees (57%) have left a conflict situation with negative feelings, such as demotivation, anger or frustration. The same report also found that U.S. employees spend 2.8 hours per week dealing with conflict, which amounts to approximately $359 billion in paid hours (based on average hourly wages of $17.95) or the equivalent of 385 million days.

Unproductive conflict can also create a toxic workplace, generating unnecessary stress and high turnover rates.

Productive vs. Unproductive Conflict

It’s impossible to eliminate all conflict. In fact, when it’s handled properly, it can lead to the exchange of new ideas and perspectives, as well as solutions to problems. The key is learning the difference between unproductive and productive conflict, and how to transform one to the other.

First let’s examine what constitutes unproductive conflict. “Unproductive conflict often has less to do with the facts of the debate than with the behaviors and styles of the parties involved,” says Brett Cooper, Cofounder of Integris Performance Advisors. “It moves from the substance of the issues at hand to attacking others’ personalities and behaviors.” In other words, it’s often due to differing communication styles.

Keep in mind, unproductive conflict doesn’t always take the form of loud arguments or shouting matches. It can also result in the “silent treatment” or avoidance, which can be equally destructive. Many people are uncomfortable with confrontation and will go to great lengths to avoid these situations.
Meanwhile, productive conflict addresses the issues in which people have differences of opinions or points of view without heated emotions or personal attacks. Debates can still be “lively and impassioned,” but the focus remains on the issue at hand. The result is a productive resolution. And, even if disagreements remain, employees feel that their opinions were heard and respected. This creates a culture of trust, a healthy exchange of ideas and more engaged employees.

Understanding Communication Styles

The key to developing productive conflict in the workplace is first acknowledging that everyone has a different style of communication; and second, understanding what those differences are and addressing them. As a leader, this begins with self-awareness. How do you typically handle conflict? Are you opinionated and aggressive? Passionate and engaged? Or, would you rather avoid conflict completely?

Successful conflict resolution can only be achieved if we’re willing to meet people in the middle and create a shared understanding. This often requires people to adjust their communication style. For instance, if one or two employees are continually overbearing or abrasive, while others remain silent, leaders will need to step in and ask them to alter their communication style. Some behaviors, such as shouting and hurling insults should not be tolerated.

Take Advantage of Helpful Resources

There is no one-size fits all approach to productive conflict. The solution will depend on the culture within your organization and the communication styles of team members. Thankfully, there are tools such as the Everything DiSC Productive Conflict model which can help you improve self-awareness around conflict behaviors. This tool can help employees recognize and address destructive thoughts and behaviors so conflict can be more productive, resulting in better workplace relationships.

At Dunbar Organizational Health, we specialize in building healthier organizations through culture alignment, including productive conflict resolution, using proven tools such as the DiSC model, as well as our unique Virtual Training (VT) Platform. We believe that every organization is unique, and therefore, every solution should be the same. With years of experience, we analyze the dynamics of your business and provide customized solutions to help you thrive.