Conflict at Workplace: What’s Good About It?

Conflict is a competition between interdependent parties who perceive having incompatible goals or needs. Our competitive behavior has biological origins – in nature only the strongest survive. According to ethnologists, humans are also programmed to engage in this kind of competitiveness. Competition is not always conscious, often we are unaware of competitive behavior, which may come across as stubbornness. People in an organization depend on each other. Manager depends on employee to successfully attain departmental goals. Employee depends on manager for guidance, feedback, and fair compensation. Thus, since we all are interdependent and competitive, conflict at the workplace is inevitable. Conflict is not the problem; problems arise from how we deal with conflict. The worst position is to be “in conflict with conflict” – avoid, deny, do nothing, or blame others for a conflict.

Sometimes conflict in organization arises because of differing cultural backgrounds. When such a conflict is resolved, it leads to better understanding about each other’s cultural values increasing diversity and inclusion. Effective conflict resolution may improve teamwork not only between the disagreeing parties, but also among other team members. When we take the “noise” of conflict out from our daily lives, we can be better focused and spend more time on organizational and client needs.

Communication is a prerequisite for conflict resolution; and through working out their disagreements, employees further practice and reinforce communication skills. Training on communication and conflict resolution skills is a good strategy, but it is more important that managers further coach and support employees on how to approach each other when disagreement arise.

Timely resolved conflict can protect both an employee and organization from a huge and unnecessary legal cost. Our judicial system is not designed to promote conflict resolution. On the contrary, when a conflict enters the legal system, it often fuels the conflict, resulting in staggering lawyer bills and court fees. Add to this the costs of a lost opportunities during the conflict, and the totals may be “hard-to-believe”. While we cannot place a dollar value on emotional costs, sometimes these costs, manifesting themselves in an ever-consuming-anger, anxiety, and sadness, may be even more unbearable than direct costs.

When disagreeing parties attempt to resolve a conflict directly rather than gossiping or creating alliances, it leads to a more positive organizational culture. Leadership has the most capacity to support such a culture. For instance, a manager can discuss with employees that “conflicts are OK”, and empower them to approach each other directly when someone’s needs are not met. If a direct approach fails, employees are encouraged to bring their disagreement to manager who then can act as mediator. When conflict involves a manager and an employee, a manager carries main responsibility to initiate conflict resolution. That also serves as modeling behavior for an employee.

Thus, while conflicts are inevitable and require us to step out of a comfort zone while attempting resolution, they can also bring benefits of better communication, improved teamwork and a more positive organizational culture.