The Positive Role of Conflict in Workplace Culture

What does a vibrant, innovative and high-performing workplace culture look like through the lens of the employee? A factor that consistently rises to the top in research and in practice is this: an individual’s sense of being heard, appreciated, and contributing constructively to something important. Employees want to feel that their work means something and their ideas matter. They want to feel they are being respected by their peers, their superiors and the leadership of the company. They feel inspired by an environment in which teams are working together to achieve common goals.

Let’s look at its opposite – a workplace environment where:

  • individuals or teams do not feel encouraged to speak up and share ideas.
  • management is not transparent and mistrust prevails.
  • an undercurrent of disrespect, bullying or harassment runs through the organization.

The results are just what you would expect: disengaged employees, low productivity, high sick days and turnover, and stagnant growth. This workplace culture is plagued byunmanaged conflict.”

Unmanaged conflict almost always results in negative outcomes that can be measured in dollars. We often introduce leaders of teams to our Cost of Conflict Calculator™, a handy (and free) online tool which uses real data collected from the team conflict experience and ties it together with industry estimates of data such as average wages, turnover costs, absenteeism, etc. The results are an estimate which, in most cases, shows enough evidence to provide proof of a need to change.

The systems and skill sets used to mitigate situations of unmanaged, negative conflicts also can work to create the foundation of healthy interpersonal relationships which underpin a strong workplace culture.

What is conflict?

Conflict naturally occurs when two or more people have divergent ideas, needs and wants – which one could say is almost always! Conflict is normal, inevitable, every organization experiences it, and it is in fact a necessary part of teamwork and innovation. When conflict is harnessed and managed (known as constructive conflict), it becomes a powerful tool for nurturing a workplace that encourages creative ideas, active and inspired participation, and open and respectful communication.

Harnessing the power of conflict is a proactive approach which boosts employee satisfaction, engagement and performance in these important ways:

  • Encourages open communication and innovation by establishing systematic rules of respectful discourse
  • Optimizes team dynamics to move collaboratively on effectively solving problems and making decisions
  • Ensures transparency and trust among peers, as well as up and down the organizational ladder
  • Deflects potential negative conflicts before they become larger issues that poison a healthy workplace culture
  • Invites fresh and holistic approaches that keep the organization nimble, cutting edge, relevant and growing

How to make conflict a positive partner in your workplace

Understanding the importance of making conflict a positive partner in your business is the first step. Crucial to success are these guiding principles and values to be accepted and incorporated into organization-wide behaviors:

  • Trust
  • Transparency
  • Respect for differences and other points of view
  • Safety – an environment that makes it safe for dissent and open opinion
  • System to proactively welcome and capture ideas
  • Training, practice and support in team-building, problem-solving, respectful discourse, conflict management

1. Shift the leadership mindset. Leadership sets the tone for the entire organization to embrace the concept of constructive conflict in a sustainable way. Rather than seeing conflict as something to be managed to reduce disagreements, understand conflict as the powerful business tool it can be. Owning the concept in the C-suite is key for constructive conflict to work, as it engenders the guiding principles listed above on a systemic level, from the top to the trenches.

2. Identify the systemic issues that are causing destructive conflict. Too commonly, leadership institutes a stop-gap policy to solve the problem at hand. However, behind most disputes is something deeper – a system, policy or workplace cultural norm – that hasn’t been addressed. So destructive conflict rears its ugly head over and over again.

3. Institutionalize mechanisms for managing conflict. Embed the attitude of constructive conflict into your organization’s everyday work life. Create the systems to support conflict competency throughout the organization:

  • Train the leadership team and managers how to anticipate and engage conflict for positive outcomes.
  • Establish clear rules of engagement on a company policy level.
  • Nurture teamwork, mutual trust, open communications and creative input.
  • Ensure that management is “walking the talk” to provide a positive model to employees through ongoing training and regular check-ins.

4. Implement a plan for workplace teams to:

  • Address disputes and disagreements before they become problems. Open, honest communication often uncovers these differences in a healthy way which can be diffused, often just interpersonally or within the team.
  • Encourage a healthy exchange of ideas and needs, within a respectful – and safe – environment. Don’t squelch the capacity to contribute! This is where the talent you hired truly shines in expertise and innovation.
  • Empower individuals with skills such as meeting etiquette, giving and getting feedback, trusting and respecting others, and quality problem solving. Behavioral change does not happen overnight, nor will everyone be on the same page at the same time. Rules, boundaries, agreements, and accountability for each, will guide the behavior in a responsible direction.

Through the power of constructive conflict, an organizational culture of engaged, passionate, purposeful, loyal and connected employees can be sustained in ways that are measurable in profits and immeasurable in quality of contribution to the greater whole.

About the Author

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Mark Baril

Mark Batson Baril, MSMACS, Founder and Senior Practitioner at Resologics, is an organizational ombudsman, mediator, conflict coach, team coach, facilitator and conflict systems analyst. It took Mark 30 years and three successful businesses to clarify his passion for conflict engagement and resolution. He had been on teams with companies including Lockheed Martin, 3M, GE Healthcare, Burton Snowboards, PALL Corporation and Medtronic, producing everything from flexible-circuits and medical devices to high-volume packaging and snowboards, before he realized that fostering productive relationships was his favorite type of project. After intuitively applying these practices for decades, Mark earned a Masters in Mediation and Conflict Studies from the Woodbury Institute. Complemented by decades of business experience and a BS in Business and Personnel Management, he has helped dozens of new and mature organizations avoid classic stumbling points and to work toward realizing their potential.