workplace conflict
Management & Mindset

Why Workplace Conflict Is Productive (and How to Manage it)

Every classroom, workplace, and seminar has conflict, but that’s not necessarily something you should avoid.

In fact, conflict—especially in a collaborative environment—can bring unexpected benefits to your organization. It can lead to new advantages for companies, classes, and relationships in many cases.

Let’s look at how you can manage conflict effectively in a collaborative learning environment.

Conflict—especially in a collaborative environment—can bring unexpected benefits to your organization.

The hidden benefits of conflict

Far from being something to avoid at all costs, conflict actually carries with it several potential advantages that your organization can benefit from. If the conflict is allowed to play out in a productive way, that is.

When you encounter conflict in the workplace (itself a collaborative environment), or a learning environment like a training seminar or coaching session, keep the following advantages in mind.

Forces discomfort

Conflict forces discomfort among team members, requiring people to shake themselves out of comfortable routines. It can help bring to light important issues during training seminars.

For example, half of your team may be displeased with the current project management software you’re using, while the other half is content to keep things as is, even if it’s not very efficient. The half of your team that is discontent starts a conflict by demanding that you change the software, so they aren’t as annoyed by its inefficiencies.

That discomfort could lead you to upgrade your software to a superior version that comes with critical features your team desperately needs.

In this way, forced discomfort can be a boon to your enterprise. It helps ensure that you are always improving and iterating on practices, technologies, and solutions for your customers. Forced discomfort will, in other words, help your business become the best it can be.

Introduces new ways of thinking

Conflict may introduce new ways of thinking to your business practices or traditional approaches.

When a team member enters a conflict with another team member, especially a superior, a new way of thinking about a problem could arise as a result. For example, say that you have a middle manager who has always offloaded products into a warehouse in a specific way.

A new hire thinks they can do it better, so they start a productive discussion and introduce conflict into the equation. After some back and forth, the middle manager decides to try the new way of offloading the product, then finds that the new way is actually more efficient.

As a result, conflict introduced a new way of thinking that led your business to save money and even potentially make more profit. It also strengthened your company culture, possibly leading to other innovations later down the road.

New ways of thinking are vital for any organization that wants to keep growing, not simply reach a peak and stagnate until it falls into obscurity or irrelevance.

Related: Your Ultimate Guide to Building a Learning Organization

Produces novel solutions

Lastly, conflict may help introduce new solutions to time-tested or difficult problems.

For instance, imagine that your organization has an issue cracking a specific product design flaw. Without finding a solution to the design flaw, you can’t move the product prototype into full production and will have to delay the rest of your workflow as a result.

The design team in charge of the product sits down and has a major brainstorming session. Conflicts are introduced, no idea presented is wrong, and everyone is welcome to add their ideas to the mix.

By the end of the brainstorming session, the product design flaw has been solved, manufacturing of the product can proceed as planned, and your business has avoided a major catastrophe.

In many cases, conflict is the only way to solve a stubborn problem simply because it forces discomfort and requires people to think outside of the box. Employees and executives alike are required to justify their decisions and excuses during the conflict, which may help them determine better ways of doing things in the future.

In many cases, conflict is the only way to solve a stubborn problem.

Conflict is inevitable

Even if conflict didn’t have serious benefits, you have to remember that it is inevitable no matter the size or demographics of your team. Conflict is also inevitable regardless of industry, even in people-focused businesses. For instance, since sales professionals only spend 34% of their time selling products, there’s plenty of time for disagreements to arise!

Conflict can arise from differences in:

  • ideology
  • life experience (which is one big reason why diversity in your workforce is practically important)
  • religion
  • demographics
  • gender, and more

With that in mind, executives should not spend time or energy trying to avoid conflict or sweep it under the rug. Instead, they should lean into conflict and look to harness its potential creative energy for good.

peer feedback asset

The template you need to make sure your peer feedback isn't shooting you in the foot.

How to handle conflict collaboratively

To maximize the potential benefits conflict can bring to your organization, you’ll need to know how to handle disagreements between team members collaboratively rather than confrontationally. There are different conflict management styles you may use depending on your personality, leadership style, and the personalities of your employees.

Let’s look at some good and not-so-good ways to handle conflict.

Poor conflict management styles

While conflict management, in general, is something executives need to practice, don’t let yourself be caught up in poor conflict management styles that can exacerbate problems or eliminate the benefits conflict can provide. Poor conflict management styles include:

  • Dominating management styles, in which the executive or someone on the team dominates the conversation. It stifles creativity and can make team members feel unwelcome in your enterprise.
  • Avoidant management styles, which are associated with sweeping things under the rug or avoiding tense situations. Not only does this cause employees to lose faith in your leadership capabilities, but it can also cause tensions to simmer enough that it leads to an explosive confrontation later down the road (without any creative benefits).

Related: Your Manager Training Wasn’t Working Before—Now It’s Really in Trouble

Successful conflict management

There are also wise or effective ways to manage conflict between yourself and your team members. These include:

  • Integrating management styles, in which you focus primarily on solving the problem at hand and incorporating multiple team members’ ideas to ensure everyone feels valued and useful. This style is best if everyone in the conflict is capable and knows their place.
  • Obliging management styles, which will have you minimize any differences between yourself and your team members. Instead, you’ll emphasize the things that bind you together, such as your loyalty to your company, your shared interests, or your shared goal to solve the problem at hand. As a bonus, this could lead to peer mentoring within your company, which is stellar for company culture.
  • Compromising management styles, in which you try to synthesize the ideas or solutions of multiple team members for the best possible results. The compromising employee management style is the hardest to pull off, but it’s often the one that enjoys the most benefits.

Ideally, you’ll consider your own personality and leadership style and choose from one of the above techniques when navigating conflict situations with your team. By integrating their ideas, binding everyone together with shared backgrounds or goals, and compromising when necessary, you’ll harness the creative potential of conflict while avoiding explosive outcomes that can damage the team morale.

Wrap up

Ultimately, managing conflict in a collaborative learning environment is an exercise in patience, empathy, and strong leadership. But with the right management style—and with your eye on the potential prizes that may await when you harness conflict properly—you can benefit from disputes that occasionally arise in classrooms and businesses alike.

Conflict cannot be avoided. Make use of it instead and help your seminar, coaching session, or business become a welcoming and productive place.