Conflict is often seen in a negative light, and often more than not, evokes a distaste when brought up. When looking up “words associated with conflict” the following words such as “war, dispute, fight, disagreement, clash, struggle, warfare, combat, and battle” are brought up. It is important to note that all of the words are associated with the negative side of conflict rather than seeing conflict in a positive light.

Since we were children, we were taught to avoid conflicts at all costs.  Conflict is bad, many of us were told. We certainly experienced team conflicts in school group projects, but were never taught how to deal with them. Students do not know how to express their feelings constructively or have not been taught how to give and receive feedback. When difficult conversations turn toxic, students tend to make the mistake of falling into a combat mentality. The reality is, when we let conversations take on this tenor, it is a lose-lose for everyone. possibly destroying friendships and ruining the rapport between other students. The lack of education in dealing with conflict has led many in becoming conflict averse, where conflict can transpire into something more personal than a simple difference in ideas. The same holds true in the workplace.  Conflict is feared and avoided.  When conflict festers, it leads to resentment and possibly hatred, which makes work relationships dysfunctional and unproductive.

What is unhealthy conflict, and what are the repercussions of it?

Balancing Laptop and Phone

Driven by the mismanagement of emotions such as anger, frustration, and bitterness, unhealthy conflict can lead to demotivation, and potentially more severe consequences such as bullying within the workplace. 

Unhealthy conflict comes in two parts. The first with individuals attaching their emotions to their ideas, and second with individuals not being able to manage their emotions while communicating their ideas. 

When you have an idea, how much weight do you put in it? How do you react and respond when others shut your ideas down? And how far do you go to defend and justify your ideas?

It’s important to stay out of an “identity mind trap” and separate your emotions from your ideas. The identity mindtrap highlights a uniquely human conundrum: we are trapped by our own egos. In a recent McKinsey report, it was discovered that our tendencies of “standing up for ourselves” or any other self-justification technique we might choose to defend our ideas can activate mind traps to serve our position. For instance, we might instinctively argue that we are right, inflating our sense of personal agency while deflecting responsibility.

This “win-lose” mentality is often adopted where individuals believe that if their ideas aren’t chosen, they “lose” and it comes off as a personal attack rather than a strategic approach. Ultimately, the notion that “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts” is lost and employees adopt an individualistic mentality to feed their egos, rather than a collaborative approach to get the best solution for the organization. 

The second aspect of unhealthy conflict deals with the mismanagement of emotions when communicating feelings. Unhealthy conflict can grow rampantly within a firm and exist dormant, ready to explode without any prior explicit symptoms.  Because we were taught from a young age to avoid conflicts, we end up becoming afraid of conflict and the magnitude of conflict that could come with a small seed of disagreement.

This fear encourages employees and individuals to create an artificial harmony and creates the mindset that it’s better to bottle up our emotions, feelings, and thoughts to “keep the peace” rather than engage in any form of debate While this may seem like the office is temporarily at peace, and everyone is playing “nice in the sandbox”, feelings can bottle up, and it can lead to channel politics, gossiping and personal attacks. This can escalate to fostering a toxic work environment and may even lead to workplace harassment.

Staying up late on a laptop

The biggest difference between the unhealthy and healthy conflict is the element of trust. Trust is incremental in the formation of any healthy conflict. With a psychologically safe environment, individuals can be able to have debates and discussions of their ideas, completely eliminating the chance of being judged for their opinion. When the ideas are at the focus of the discussion or conflict, rather than someone’s personality or character, suggestions can be generated and challenged collectively to propel the organization’s missions and goals forwards rather than just a specific team or individual’s. Remember, healthy conflict focuses on principles, not personalities.

The best way to handle conflict at work is to have established conflict norms that are believed in. There needs to be a strong foundation of trust, allowing individuals to feel comfortable and open in being vulnerable. Conflict norms are expectations you set prior to a discussion that helps individuals separate their emotions from their ideas, as well as allow them to flex their communication style to cater to those within their teams.

Samples of Conflict Norms
  1. Outline the objective of the discussion.
  2. Give context to your ideas. Don’t assume everyone is on the same page as you.
  3. Take into consideration how others deal with conflict.
  4. Establish trust in your team and don’t make it personal.
  5. Address ideas instead of individuals. 
  6. Everyone’s opinion should be expressed and participation is required.
  7. Understand this is a safe environment; fear should not keep you from voicing your opinions.

So what can you do?

Normalize conflict within your teams. A huge factor as to why some teams avoid conflict (only for it to come back at a later date) is because they simply don’t know how to deal with conflict. Unconsciously, they may be emotionally attached to the ideas they put forth, or they might be sensitive overthinkers where they feel like every comment or question is personal. 

Napping on the couch while working

Proactive measures that would aid in how to approach conflict at work include understanding your team’s emotional makeup and getting them to understand each other. By having a firm understanding of your team’s profile, you can all become more empathetic towards each other as you learn more about f your group’s concerns, triggers, and motivations.  Your teams will learn that being open, candid, and genuine about individual and group developmental needs, will help gain the trust and compassion of their colleagues.  In turn, this trust will ultimately lead to more honest conversations, talking about the real issues the team is facing, leading to enhanced group harmony, improved productivity, and quality of performance. 

Conflict shouldn’t scare us, but when done right should excite us to achieve more. Though we grew up learning to avoid conflict at all costs, learning to adapt our worldview to embrace conflict is crucial for any development to take place. The whole is truly greater than the sum of its parts and that is reflected in group decision-making, especially through conflict.  Let’s face it – innovation depends on the diversity of ideas.  Conflict should not be avoided but encouraged and managed. By engaging in healthy conflict and establishing conflict norms, you can strengthen your and your team’s conflict resolution skills at work.

How do you and your team address issues at work? How would you resolve a conflict between two employees at work? Take a look at some of our reflection questions and take an inventory of your team’s style of conflict management. 

To learn more about conflict management, leading with emotional intelligence, and how it impacts your team, sign up for our biweekly newsletter here, where you will receive our latest updates, how to handle conflict at work tips, an inventory of free resources, and much more! 

Do you find it difficult having real-talk conversations with your team and forming genuine connections with them? Book a call with me here; I’d love to listen and provide support in any way I can. 

Or learn more about how you can use conflict to inspire more through our Building High Performing Teams or about developing your team’s communication skills through our Communicating with an Impact keynote.

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