Office Conflict: When Fighting Can Be Good

Sometimes we try too hard to “play nice” with each other. At work, as in life, there will be times when we do not all agree. One of the major benefits of building a diverse team is to get different types of thinking around the table. That means, by default, there will be times when we disagree.

The question is, is the occasional “fight” good for our organizations? The answers is yes, but of course it depends.

Friction is not warfare

In most successful organizations that are pushing the boundaries there will be some tension and friction. But do not confuse tension and friction with “warfare.” Warfare has teams lining up on sides and fighting for “their side.” In warfare there are clear winners and losers. What is worse, in warfare there are casualties.

At work—however we resolve our differences—at the end of the day after the debate finishes, we still need to work together. It is much better if there are no “dead bodies” to clean up. Here are a couple of conflict examples where friction can help a business:

  1. Between sales in a quarter and the marketing vision for long term product positioning.
  2. Between two engineering teams with two different ways to solve the same problem. There is probably no way of knowing which is the right answer—they both present choices.

In both of these examples, the business needs to make choices and deploy resources. As you strive for the “best” answer, you need to be able to let multiple voices and opinions be heard.

Let the disagreements happen but stop the warfare.

Above all, transparency

It has been my experience that most disputes at work are solved when someone brings transparency to the problem. A public and fair detailing of the facts often clears the air and shows that both sides have some validity to their views. A lack of transparency always causes more problems than it solves—and it can fester until it is hard to cure.

If you are to encourage some conflict, you can avoid long term mistrust with transparency. Get both sides to “lay their cards on the table” so each can see all the facts. Remember that transparency also applies to how the final decision is made too. All sides need to understand what was decided and why.

Not everyone is going to like what happened but they do have to agree to live with it. This will be impossible if there is no transparency and people believe things are being kept secret. The secrets, well meaning or not, create conspiracy thinking.

Talk it out, comprise & move on

The reality is that every conflict ends in one of three ways: victory, defeat or a compromise.

In any organization, victories tend to be short lived and end up becoming battles in bigger wars. To avoid this, we need to make sure—whatever is decide—that you talk it out, comprise and move on. This can of course be difficult and even painful.

Any strong debate means egos can be bruised and feelings are often hurt. In the end we need to help our team understand that it is not personal and we should stop them from making it personal.

My mantra is “don’t make it personal or take it personally”—not always easy to do. One of the best ways to do this is to keep the team focused on the objectives of the company or project. Make sure everyone agrees what matters.

Also, do not confuse compromise and consensus. ​Compromise assumes we all “give some ground” but consensus implies we have all agreed and accepted the outcome.

Additionally, watch out for passive-aggressive behavior and stomp it out. You do not want a team that “perceived it lost” saying it will “go-along-to-get-along”—and then find them doing the opposite.

Bottom line

It would be incredibly naive to think there will be no conflict at work. While it might make you nervous, it is important to remember that conflict is everywhere—and it can be healthy if managed properly.

If your team has some friction, make sure you help them resolve it in a way you can all move forward together.

Nigel Dessau is a nationally award-winning marketing professional with over 25 years of experience leading corporate marketing and communications for several multi-million and billion dollar companies. He is the creator and driving force behind The 3 Minute Mentor website, which provides significant career guidance in three minute videos. The site has thousands of subscribers from all over the world.  Dessau’s book, Become a 21st Century Executive, is based upon episodes and concepts found in the 3 Minute Mentor. Learn more about the 3 Minute Mentor and Become a 21st Century Executive at www.the3minutementor.com or www.nigeldessau.com and connect with him on Twitter at @3minutementor and @nigeldessau.

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