Good Friction: When Workplace Conflict Is Constructive
At the team meeting, you inwardly roll your eyes when your boss announces the team is going to break into small groups to do some brainstorming. But then she says you can pick your own groups, so you grab the arms of your two office besties and pull them into a quiet corner. You have a lot in common and tend to think similarly, so the conversation is fun and effortless. Within a few minutes, you have what you think is the perfect solution to the problem, and you spend the rest of the time chatting about family and pets. But when you present your solution to the larger group, it’s quickly shot down as people expose the many holes in your reasoning.
What happened? You’re all intelligent people, and you had high confidence in the solution you presented. You get along great — and maybe that’s the problem. Although it feels good to agree and have your ideas validated, an absence of conflict rarely produces the best solutions. “Indeed, we found that the alternative to conflict is usually not agreement but apathy and disengagement,” researchers Kathleen Eisenhardt, Jean Kahwajy, and L.J. Bourgeois III write in Harvard Business Review. “Teams unable to foster substantive conflict ultimately achieve, on average, lower performance.”
Studies have shown that workplace conflict, when done right, provides a more comprehensive range of information, a deeper understanding of the issues, and a broader set of possible solutions than frictionless interactions. In a recent survey conducted by the NeuroLeadership Institute, 54% of respondents said workplace conflict has led to benefits, such as engaging the entire team in the discussion, exploring less popular ideas, and identifying growth areas. But keeping constructive conflict from becoming destructive requires psychological safety, transparency, respect, intellectual curiosity, and good leadership, respondents say.
Healthy conflict is the reason diverse teams make smarter decisions, despite being less comfortable and confident in those decisions. When you bring a group of people with different experiences, ideas, and philosophies together, there’s bound to be disagreement. Compared with homogeneous groups, diverse teams aren’t as prone to accepting things at face value: They’re skeptical and scrutinizing, avoiding the conformity of groupthink. As a result of their thorough vetting, solutions tend to be more innovative and bullet-proof — even if the group doesn’t recognize it at the time.
In fact, in the moment, such interactions can feel downright uncomfortable, which, ironically, is another reason they tend to be more productive. The mere presence of an “outsider” — someone who’s not a member of the majority (whether that’s race, gender, ideology, etc.) — can improve the group’s reasoning and accuracy, even when the outsider’s viewpoints aren’t expressed. Perhaps it’s because people think through their arguments better when they know there’s a strong chance of dissent. Or maybe it improves reasoning and decision-making by placing everyone in a mild threat state. Known as a Level 1 threat, this optimal level of anxiety actually improves performance compared to a stress-free situation.
But just because you’ve brought together a diverse group doesn’t guarantee your conflict will be constructive. Here are some tips to help your team have a good fight.
Create a climate of psychological safety
A prerequisite for any lively debate is a climate of psychological safety. Employees need to feel safe to speak up, ask questions, and challenge ideas without fear of judgment or repercussions. If they don’t, the conversation will be dominated by the loudest, most confident voices, and valuable perspectives will be lost.
One way for leaders to cultivate psychological safety is to practice situational humility — acknowledging they don’t have all the answers and are seeking others’ perspectives. For example, a manager might say, “It’s been a while since I’ve been on a sales call. Tell me what you’re hearing from customers.” A leader can model psychological safety by admitting their mistakes: “I thought I came up with a good solution, but I realized I hadn’t thought it through when the leadership team started picking it apart.” Leaders can also use humor (for example, a self-deprecating joke) to break through the ice of power structures that prevent employees from speaking up.
Focus on shared goals
When team discussions become competitions, egos quickly overwhelm ingenuity. So it’s important to create common goals, stressing there are no individual winners or losers — everyone’s collaborating to achieve the best solution for the team. For example, a tech company management team agreed their common goal was to build “the best damn machine on the market.” Then, they could disagree about technical alternatives without losing focus or turning personal.
Shared goals build team cohesion, giving every employee a stake in the outcome of the debate. Team members are more likely to listen to and learn from others rather than stubbornly cling to their own position in an attempt to save face.
Have you ever spent hours debating an issue without anyone having a firm grasp of the facts? In this exercise in futility, people base their arguments on beliefs or conjectures rather than actual data, resulting in wasted time and pointless arguments rooted in ignorance. “There is a direct link between reliance on facts and low levels of interpersonal conflict,” write Eisenhardt, Kahwajy, and Bourgeois. “Facts … depersonalize the discussion because they are not someone’s fantasies, guesses, or self-serving desires.”
It’s important to ensure that everyone — not just managers — has access to the information needed to make an informed decision. For instance, prior to a meeting, leaders can gather and share data on current sales, expenses, technical developments, and competitor’s actions.
Reframe how you think about conflict
It’s only natural to feel attacked when someone questions our ideas or opinions. But if we allow our threat level to rise, we’re no longer able to think productively, and our flight-or-fight response kicks in: Either we become defensive, or we go on the offense — pointing out the flaws of whoever’s making us feel attacked. Either way, the discussion quickly becomes unproductive and personal.
One study showed that training in a mindfulness technique called reappraisal — which involves a cognitive shift in how we perceive a situation — helps employees view conflict as collaborative instead of destructive. So, for example, instead of thinking, “John just attacked my idea. He’s insinuating I’m incompetent and stupid,” you could shift your perception to “John’s exposing holes in my thinking. Together, we can come up with a better solution.”
At the next team meeting, your boss announces you’ll again be breaking into small groups for brainstorming — but the groups must be different from last time. You smile at your friends and join two people you don’t know well and with whom you share few outward commonalities. You each propose an idea, but they all have problems. After much debate, you incorporate aspects of all three ideas into your final solution. You don’t feel very confident in your cobbled-together plan, but the larger group can’t seem to poke any holes in it. Maybe some friction isn’t so bad after all.