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6 practical pointers for creating constructive conflict at work


Chances are, executives, managers and employees are not always going to agree about how to handle company issues. Business is complicated, and so are people, so it’s natural that disagreements will arise.

When this happens, “Because I said so,” isn’t a directive that will earn you much respect as a business leader. It’s also not going to foster creative problem-solving. And, letting arguments get too emotional can cause lasting damage to relationships, lowering productivity and team cohesion.

So, how can you support friendly debate among managers and employees without it getting too heated? What are some tips to consider when engaging in these types of conversations? How can you make sure conflict is productive?

Here are six practical pointers that can help you turn conflict into an opportunity for innovation and creative problem-solving:

1. Change the semantics

One of the best ways to use conflict constructively is to change the way you think about it. Don’t take it personally. Rather than considering the person you’re disagreeing with as an opponent, think of them as someone with a different idea or new approach to the problem at hand.

Instead, focus on the issue and how you can arrive at a solution that works for everyone. As dispassionately as possible, look for areas of agreement and build from there.

Say, for example, that you and a teammate disagree about how to implement a new process. If you can both agree that it’s important to meet the new deadline to keep a customer happy, you have taken the first step to finding a mutually agreeable solution. Once you establish that you have a shared goal or goals, it’s easier to work out the details and act on them.

2. Watch your buts

When conflict arises, it’s important to watch your language to avoid being overly negative or incendiary. In particular, watch your use of the word “but.”

If you say, “I agree, but …” all the other person hears is, “but here’s why you’re wrong.”

Keep the conversation positive by talking about risks and opportunities. Find a way to genuinely compliment the other person’s idea. Show your respect by asking questions to dig deeper into what the other person is thinking. Then, really give their point of view some thought. Otherwise, it’s just lip service, which almost always comes across as insincere. Because it is.

This will help you build consensus, refine your ideas, or find a creative solution neither of you had considered before. Regardless, you’re encouraging everyone to be more open to alternative perspectives (yourself included), and you’re moving toward a positive outcome together.

3. Rely on data

One of the best ways to keep emotions from boiling over is to rely on data when discussing an area of conflict. By relying on quantitative, versus qualitative, information, you help ensure you’re solving the right problem for the right reasons, rather than responding to gut feelings.

If your company needs to reduce labor costs, for instance, stick to the facts. How much do costs need to come down? Are you going to reduce the workforce by a certain percent in each department or target a few highly compensated professionals for layoffs?

Look at the numbers and weigh all the options. Maybe there’s a different strategy that will help you reduce labor costs just as well, while allowing people to keep their jobs.

When you take emotion out of the equation, it helps everyone see the situation more clearly and positions the issue at hand as just business. But that doesn’t mean you should be cold or distant when handling difficult issues. Whatever the topic, show empathy and take care to communicate respectfully and professionally.

4. Practice and promote self-awareness

Generally, when we’re in conflict with someone at work, it’s because we’re resisting something. This holds true for everyone from CEOs to frontline employees. If you find yourself or others digging in their heels and avoiding change, it’s good practice to stop and figure out what’s behind your own resistance, and encourage everyone else to do the same.

For example, maybe your department is being asked to use a new software. Are you resistant to adopting this new software because you tried a similar product before that failed, or because the expense wasn’t built into your budget, or because your team is short-handed and doesn’t have the bandwidth to implement the change?

If you can identify and communicate the basis for your opposition, you can begin to move forward to find a solution that meets business needs.

5. Avoid generalizations

The path to constructive conflict is paved with detailed, specific language. Avoid generalizations if you want to find common ground and reduce emotional reactions to what you’re saying. No one likes blanket statements that label them or make false assumptions about their ideas.

For instance, maybe you need to coach your receptionist who consistently returns late from her lunch break. Don’t present the problem as, “You’re always late.” Instead, talk about the specific days and amount of time the receptionist was late, and how that impacts other team members and the organization as a whole.

If you have to pull another person in to answer the phones and sign for packages, which delays other tasks, explain the problem. Then, look for specific ways the receptionist can improve her timeliness and give her the opportunity to do better. Let her know you believe in her and are confident she will rise to the challenge. That way, you focus on the positive and motivate her, instead of dwelling on what she’s done wrong.

6. Seek understanding, not a final agreement

Many times, people avoid conflict at work because they think in terms of absolutes. However, when conflict arises, understanding other points of view should be the priority rather than finding a final resolution.

After all, 100-percent consensus may not be feasible or even desirable since constructive conflict can lead to new, creative solutions to business problems. Agreeing to disagree is not always a bad thing, as long as you can reach a compromise that’s in the company’s best interest.

Rather than focusing on an ultimate solution, aim for a decision that balances the needs of most departments or employees. Shoot for optimal productivity and efficiency, given the facts you can all agree on. This allows everyone to feel respected and heard, and helps avoid the festering resentments that eat positive energy and stymie teamwork.

Find additional ways to manage tough, everyday business situations. Download our free magazine, The Insperity Guide to Leadership and Management.