Productive vs. Unproductive Conflict in the Workplace

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Our workplaces have a conflict problem. Over half of all employees (57%) have left a conflict situation with negative feelings—most commonly, demotivation, anger, or frustration—according to the “CPP Global Human Capital Report.”

The same report also found that U.S. employees spend 2.8 hours per week dealing with conflict. This amounts to approximately $359 billion in paid hours (based on average hourly earnings of $17.95), or the equivalent of 385 million working days.

Clearly, unproductive conflict has both a human toll and a tangible business cost. However, conflict, when done right, can be a healthy part of a positive work experience. In fact, if you think about it, conflict is required to make sense of competing ideas and diverse perspectives. Conflict is the means by which we discuss options and select the best answers.

Rather than eliminate conflict entirely, we need to learn how to have productive conflict. That begins with understanding the differences between productive and unproductive conflict.

Unproductive Conflict

What separates productive conflict from unproductive conflict is how people go about conducting the exchange. Unproductive conflict often has less to do with the facts of the debate than with the behaviors and styles of the parties involved. It moves from the substance of the issues at hand to attacking others’ personalities and behaviors.

This usually doesn’t start with an act of ill will. Far more often, it is due to a clash of differing communication styles.

This is what happened at a prominent healthcare organization in California with “Darren,” for example. Darren was brought up to be loud. His family was very loving, but they were noisy and opinionated, and their dinner conversations were often filled with spirited debate.

In his team of 20 individuals, Darren’s approach to debate was a little too spirited for some of the others on the team. Darren’s assertive style effectively silenced them, leaving meetings dominated by his voice alone. Frequently, when Darren would offer ideas, others would just let their objections go rather than risk getting into an uncomfortable debate. Several members of the team responded not by discussing this imbalance with Darren but by talking among themselves and starting to gang up against him.

Destructive conflict in an office doesn’t have to involve shouting matches. Sometimes, it shows up as silence. In either case, there’s often plenty of gossip, as well. That’s what happened in Darren’s office. The rest of the team was channeling their frustrations into mean-spirited, unproductive conversations that Darren wasn’t party to.

When differing communication styles are not recognized and accounted for, like in this example, we increase the odds of people feeling irritated or pushed aside. Instead of respectfully debating the issue, unchecked emotions quickly escalate the interaction into a fight between individuals and their personalities, with factions forming. This makes it more difficult to respectfully discuss the real issues that need to be addressed.

Productive Conflict

Productive conflict is conflict that produces the results you want—better, more informed decisions for the company—without creating negative feelings for those involved.

Productive conflict directly addresses the issues in which people have differences of opinion or points of view without devolving into personal attacks. The debate can be lively and impassioned, but it remains focused on the issue that needs to be discussed. Those involved seek to find the right answer, not just to win the argument or gain individual glory. At the end, even if disagreement still exists, people can walk away feeling heard and respected.

An understanding and adjustment to different communication styles can help you ensure conflict remains productive. In Darren’s case, initially, he was largely unaware of the tension his communication style was bringing to the team. He saw himself as passionate and engaged, not overwhelming or combative…

Source: HR Daily Advisor

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