Why You Need Healthy Conflict at Work (and 3 Ways to Create it)

I have a hard time disagreeing with people.

As a woman of Asian descent, I’m culturally inclined to smooth over differences and conflicts rather than pursue them. It served me throughout my career to do everything possible to make sure everybody gets along.

But avoiding disagreements is terrible for leadership and business. When things are left unsaid, you tarnish relationships and lose diversity of viewpoints. Relationships and trust aren’t as strong as they need to be to drive disruption. While avoiding conflict might feel like a relief today, you’re guaranteeing poor outcomes and even failure in the future.

Why does disagreeing make us cringe? 

We’re wired to get along with people. We want harmony and balance in our organizations, among our leaders, and with our peers. There’s a sense of danger because we don’t know how to handle disagreement and conflict. 

We worry: what if the disagreement spins out of control? And mucks up our operations? We could just grind to a halt, and not be able to get things done!

So we leave things unsaid. We take our concerns behind closed doors so we can preserve the illusion that we all get along. But beneath that calm surface there are feet furiously treading water. You may be creating a vision of peace, but there’s tons of conflict that isn’t getting resolved. And this is not healthy.

We need to rewire our thinking to welcome conflict because conflict is a reality and inevitable. We need to create cultures where disagreements are encouraged because they improve our thinking and outcomes, creating trust and strengthening relationships

I shared how to flex your healthy conflict muscles in my livestream last week — you can watch the replay here. It comes down to three things leaders must do to foster healthy disagreements. This is especially important if you’re going through digital transformation or executing a disruptive growth strategy. You’ll need everyone at the table and coming into the open with their ideas. For that to happen, you need structure around healthy conflict. Here’s what to do:

1. Create Commitment

First and foremost, create a shared commitment to a single goal, objective, vision or purpose. Unless this shared purpose is clear and reinforced constantly, everyone will lose sight of why you’re doing things together.

But when you know you’re fighting for the same thing, then it’s safe to disagree about how you’re going to get there or who is responsible for what. Being clear and unified on the why provides a strong foundation to hash out disagreements about the way forward.

2. Create a Culture of Feedback 

It’s not enough to tell your team, “I welcome feedback.” It’s great to encourage that as a leader, but are you confident that the people in that room are capable of giving feedback? And what happens when you’re not in the room?

Giving feedback does not come naturally to most people. We don’t want to ruffle feathers or hurt people’s feelings. Feedback needs structure. I realized this as I was growing my firm Altimeter, because we were lousy at giving each other feedback!

So we invested in creating a process for giving feedback, called SBI (Situation, Behavior, Impact) that was developed by the Center for Creative Leadership. Here’s how it works: first you set the stage by saying, “I have some feedback for you, is now a good time?” And the receiver might say, “I have a meeting soon and can’t give you my full attention. Let’s connect later today.”

When the time comes, you first describe the situation (“we were walking together in a hallway”). Then you describe the behavior, (“I observed this behavior from you”). And third you share the impact (“this is how I felt and this is how that behavior impacted me”).

We found that when we had this structure in place, and we actually practiced doing this with each other, we got so much better at providing feedback to each other. Feedback like this fundamentally builds trust that we can say anything to each other, and it’s going to be okay.

3. Create a Practice of Candor

Candor means making a commitment to leave nothing unsaid. Candor invites you to be forthright with each other, that you will speak honestly and that you will receive candor from others like the gift that it is.

Feedback is situational, whereas candor is more broad. It could be about a relationship, or the way things are working in the company, or a concern about a future direction. Practicing candor creates a safe environment where everyone can be heard. I call it a practice because it’s a skill you develop over time, both in giving candor and receiving it. Unless you practice it regularly and encourage others to do the same, this environment of safety and trust will never happen.

Making conflict safe and welcome is a disruptive act of leadership that will make your organization fitter, stronger, and healthier for anything that comes your way.