How To Use Workplace Conflict to Your Advantage

by Karen Keller, Ph.D.

Conflict is a fact of life. Getting comfortable with it is the hard part. Conflict is painful and when confronted many of us slip into some form of avoidance.

That’s the first mistake.

It doesn’t go away – it just grows.

As the saying goes, dealing with conflict when it feels like a “pinch” is so much better than waiting until it grows and feels like a “crunch.”

No doubt conflict can be destructive but it can also be constructive.

Use conflict creatively. Take emotion out of a difficult conversation. Transform an emotional conversation into a business conversation. Diffuse the tension by saying something like – “I understand how you feel, but let’s look at this another way.”

Using conflict for good means understanding the basic principles of how conflict is instrumental in the learning and growth process. For instance, a team (which can be two people) can use conflict as a way to learn to work together.

If you were exactly the same as someone else, one of you would be irrelevant, right?


Internal Conflict Is Just As Important and Useful As External Conflict

The term conflict is generally associated with negative engagement or consequences. But consider this. When is it you entertain new beliefs or ideas? When everything is the same? When no one challenges you? When you continue to see things the same way year after year? Of course not.

It’s the conflict inside of you; the nagging what if’s, the uncertainty that arises from complacency, the feeling that just doesn’t quite set right, that points you in a new direction, forcing you to ask new and better questions.

But what about the conflict at work? How can you use that to your advantage? You first start by understanding the four stages of learning within an organization. And by the way, these stages are equally present if you are running your own business as well.

Here are the four stages of learning and the benefits of conflict at each stage.

1. Collaborative climate. This is the initial coming together of the team. And as with all groups coming together there will be relationship and personality conflict. Even marriages deal with this stage. Everyone is on their best behavior at first then people become more open about their beliefs, values and feelings. This is the stage where trust begins to form.

The success of this stage of conflict depends on people’s willingness and ability to accept relational differences. This is a good indicator of how the other stages of conflict will go. Success at this stage looks like this; meetings take place often, people confront each other in a productive way, and gossip or ‘talking behind backs’ isn’t happening.

In your own business this stage means stop sabotaging your success. You have to deal with the ideas that conflict with each other by assessing your beliefs, your needs and how you will accomplish each of these. Don’t avoid answering the tough questions about your business. How will you control the growth? Where will you be spending precious dollars? What barriers are holding you back from making tough decisions? Who are you depending on to help?

Advantages of conflict at this stage: It is best to know how people feel in the beginning rather than later on in the group or learning process. For instance, it’s no picnic finding out well into the group process that Stan hates the way Cheryl communicates and begins some passive aggressive behavior towards her. Getting the relational conflict out in the open in the beginning is not only smart but beneficial to the end results.

2. Collective Understanding. This stage is where you develop a clear vision, understanding and articulating your purpose and goals. Now, since you have been open and honest about relational differences (and found common ground) you will be able to work your way through the differences you have around goals.

You develop alternatives, insights, and direction during the collective understanding stage. Success at this stage means the group is coming together to determine a common or clear vision of its goals and everyone is on board.

In your business this stage means doing the work to understand what goals are important and which ones are urgent. You prioritize what will get you where you want to be in a month, a year or longer. If you don’t do this then you risk procrastination and avoidance.

Advantages of conflict at this stage: Conflict around goals leads to better goals. It forces you to decide and to know what your decision is based on. What is it that is pushing you toward a particular action? What consequences or outcomes will happen and how will you deal with them? Successfully navigating this aspect of your business is critical.

3. Achieving Collective Competency. This is the stage where you develop your tasks, systems and processes. You analyze your skills and capabilities deciding what to use where and when. Strategy becomes your best friend. The conflict that arises is usually about procedures. The devil’s advocate comes out here. This isn’t a bad thing because it forces you to think, entertain and try on new ways or ideas.

In your business this stage is important because it is too easy for an entrepreneur to get stuck in single way of thinking or doing things. No creativity in that. The rules or norms are written. People are connected, there’s good work flow and established expertise. People have a good idea on how to work together.

Advantages of conflict at this stage: Because you’ve taken the time to organize and prioritize you can accept responsibility for mistakes leading to solutions. Because of how you accept accountability your mistakes will surface quickly allowing you to deal with them quickly. Money, time and energy are saved.

4. Continual Improvement. This is the stage where is it safe to modify what you are learning or doing. There is mutual respect, appreciation and comfort in knowing each other’s strengths and weaknesses. Knowledge is shared making the team less vulnerable to a person leaving.

New problems can cause the team to recycle through the previous stages, but it occurs rapidly and in the spirit of learning. Process and task conflicts have a new meaning. They give rise to better, improved ways of doing things. Ongoing debate and conversation is supported by mutual trust and respect.

In your business this stage allows you to challenge old assumptions that will lead to improved practices. Your awareness of what is important is significantly higher than if you never had internal or external conflict.

Advantages of conflict at this stage: In one word – security. You have the security of knowing how and when to solve conflict and problems.

So, next time you are tempted to run away from conflict, consider these benefits:

  • Conflict let’s you know that problems exist.
  • Discussing conflicting views or ideas can lead to better solutions.
  • Managing conflict is quicker and more efficient than letting conflicts fester (not to mention the anxiety it causes).
  • Challenging old assumptions can lead to changes in outdated practices and processes.
  • Conflict calls for creativity to find the best outcomes.
  • Conflict shows you what is important to individuals.
  • Managing conflicts appropriately helps build your self-esteem.
  • Conflicts are challenging.
  • Conflicts are exciting.
  • Conflicts encourage you to grow.
  • Conflicts create more opportunities than anything else.

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