Organizations that can harness the power of productive conflict foster a culture where individuals trust and respect each other personally and professionally. Team members are committed to the organization and go above and beyond to get the job done. They are more likely to meet their objectives. These teams and individuals are willing to sacrifice to meet the organization’s goals.

Productive conflict is about:

  • Questioning, not arguing.
  • Understanding, not judging.
  • Inclusion, not exclusion.

Creating a culture that embraces productive conflict requires leaders who encourage team members at all levels to push back against the status quo.

Conflict is necessary for individual and organizational growth. It can inspire innovation. It helps people see and think deeper and is key to developing creative solutions. Engaging in productive conflict forces people to support their positions logically.

You know you’re in this type of environment if:

  • Team members are passionate and unguarded in discussing issues.
  • The most critical and challenging issues are addressed and resolved as a team.
  • Team meetings are compelling and not boring.

Creating a culture that fosters productive conflict starts with a culture of caring. To care about someone, we need to know one another. What do you know about your teammates’ backgrounds and personal lives? What are their goals and dreams? Who are they outside of work? I’ve been in organizations that expect frontline supervisors to know the names of their direct reports and their family members, where they were from, and some fun facts about their backgrounds.

Not only do we need to know our teammates’ backgrounds, but it’s also essential to know their unique set of tendencies and preferences. This requires a baseline understanding of emotional intelligence. Using behavior models such as the DiSC model of human behavior often assists our clients in understanding themselves and others’ behavioral tendencies.

  • Some people thrive on conflict and disagreement while searching for solutions—but they fear losing. These individuals need to understand that productive conflict isn’t a win-lose proposition.
  • Others are very outgoing and people-oriented. They have big ideas, want to be in the middle of the action, and want to make others happy. This group’s biggest fear is rejection. It’s crucial for them to know that they can’t make everyone happy.
  • The third group is very supportive and wants nothing more than to be a valuable team member. This group doesn’t like conflict and is resistant to change. They need to know that their perspective matters and that disagreement does not equal disrespect.
  • The last group of individuals is very analytical and fears being wrong. This group needs to understand that it’s okay to spitball and that we can’t always get to the best answer without a struggle.

It is the leader’s responsibility to promote healthy conflict, especially when contributors are presenting the voice of their customers. It is also essential for leaders not to allow this conflict to become personal. When people aren’t able to contribute, it makes it difficult for them to commit.

In Trey Gowdy’s book Doesn’t Hurt to Ask, Trey says, “You aren’t going to change folks’ minds, but through professional dialogue, you can move closer to each other.” It’s about persuasion. It’s not about winning people over—it’s about bringing them closer together.

Up to this point in the blog, I’ve intentionally worked hard to leave out the word “debate.” 

  • Debate is science, and it is for the best talker.
  • Persuasion is an art, and it is for the best listener.

Trey describes listening with presence as “sitting down and listening to others, working to understand how they think. Understand why they think it. And then trying to feel what they feel.”

Most organizations avoid conflict and consider it taboo. People avoid conflict because they don’t want to hurt people’s feelings.

Patrick Lencioni says that teams that fear conflict:

  • Have boring meetings.
  • Create environments where back-channel politics and personal attacks thrive.
  • Avoid controversial topics that are critical to team success.
  • Fail to tap into all the opinions and perspectives of team members.
  • Waste time and energy with posturing and interpersonal risk management.

Productive conflict inspires innovation and makes for a fantastic work environment. Rather than discouraging conflict, embrace it. Feel good that folks are speaking up. It shows there is a caring culture of trust and respect.