Learning & Development, Talent

Productive vs. Unproductive Conflict in the Workplace

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.

Once he became aware of how his colleagues were perceiving his actions, he was embarrassed. And he wanted to make it right.

He began with a public apology for his behavior. Then he went further. He told the team, “I’m not great at seeing when I’ve crossed the line. So I need your help. If you see me getting too loud and shutting you or others out of the conversation, please interrupt and let me know. With your support, I know I can be a better collaborator with you all.”

Darren knew he had to stretch beyond his normal communication style, and he was ready to try. This was an important first step in getting the team to a place of productive conflict. However, his colleagues also had to stretch their communication style. Those who would rather stay silent or walk away from conflict had to learn to speak up and help Darren recognize when he was going too far or being too abrasive.

Meeting in the Middle

Success at work requires productive conflict. We are constantly considering new products and services, new requirements from our customers, and new improvements in our ability to deliver on the expectations of our stakeholders. We need the best answers and ideas, which requires us to challenge our assumptions and vigorously debate new approaches and answers.

In order for us to have the kind of productive conflict needed for success, we must work to meet in the middle.

When faced with unproductive conflict, you must bring the issue out into the open, as Darren did. Then everyone must work to address the problem head on. Some people, like Darren, will need to develop more sensitivity to detect when people are getting uncomfortable, and others, like Darren’s coworkers, need to become more comfortable making their thoughts and opinions heard.

With mutual respect and a willingness to adjust their communication style, teams can engage in the kind of productive conflict that leads to success.

For more advice on productive vs. unproductive conflict in the workplace, you can find Solving the People Problem: Essential Skills You Need to Lead and Succeed in Today’s Workplace on Amazon.

Brett M. Cooper and Evans Kerrigan help professionals like you build work relationships that really work. Over the last 20 years, they’ve influenced thousands of people in government, nonprofits, and corporate America to work together in more productive, more effective, and more human ways.

Through Integris Performance Advisors—the firm they cofounded—Cooper and Kerrigan have helped clients increase employee engagement, improve efficiency, and generate hundreds of millions in financial benefit. They are frequent speakers on team dynamics, leadership, and operational excellence. To access more great content and resources, and to connect directly with Cooper and Kerrigan, visit SolvingThePeopleProblem.com.

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