The Upsides of Conflict at Work

Three productive ways to think about conflict

“If conflict isn’t happening, work isn’t getting done the best it could be.”

– Chanda Smith Baker, Senior Vice President Community Impact, Minneapolis Foundation

When you hear the word conflict, chances are you subconsciously jump to thoughts of negativity. Conflict often conjures ideas of tension in relationships or the reason for discontentment at work. Perhaps it goes even deeper and you connect it with anxiety, avoidance, or fear.

Conflict does cause tension and discontentment, anxiety and fear for many people, and wanting to keep the peace and avoid conflict is natural. But there are more constructive ways of looking at conflict, specifically at work; ways which can only increase your value, belonging, and professional output.

We recently attended an event put on by Pollen Midwest, a company which invests in human connection to fuel momentum for social change. The event was a panel discussion about conflict as it applies to work, and we left with a new awareness of conflict and how it can be used to cultivate better outcomes.

Here are three productive ways to think about conflict at work:

Conflict as connection

Conflict is rarely about the surface-level subject matter. Almost always, something deeper drives the disagreement, such as firm beliefs or past experiences. At work, when two people disagree on something and therefore engage in conflict, what they’re really doing is reacting to their own truths being threatened by another’s.

Your truth is ultimately connected to what we at Studio/E call your desire, or what drives your incentives and motivations in any given situation. It’s the “why” behind your thoughts and emotions. When something you know to be true is argued against, it’s natural to become defensive or even recoil from the confrontation. But recoiling is actually a disservice to you. If you recoil rather than engage in conflict, what you’re really doing is silencing your own truth.

At the panel discussion, Assistant Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice Hamline University, Jillian Peterson, said, “Everyone’s right in their own eyes based on their life experiences. Everyone just wants to be witnessed and heard. It’s amazing how powerful and healing it is, as a leader, to come in with humility and spend 10 minutes to provide that space for people.”

What if we thought about conflict like Jillian does — as an opportunity to connect with others? Or as a time to find out others’ truths and desires? What if we took the time to identify why people feel the way they do, and then identify what the conflict is really about? These underlying truths reveal so much more about the people you surround yourself with than their objections to your truths do.

Conflict is an opportunity to cultivate connection, and what human doesn’t crave connection?

Conflict as an act of generosity

While assembling teams, wise leaders bring in individuals who are smarter than them in specific areas. A leader brings in a marketing professional to spearhead outreach efforts or a finance person to keep the lights on. They do this for a reason: to produce the very best work possible. In order to do this, these individuals must bring their knowledge and experience to the table every single day. The expectation when bringing in professionals in their field is that they will contribute their vast knowledge and experiences to the company, so if conflict isn’t occurring, someone somewhere is being too passive — and passivity does not make change happen.

Conflict at work, then, is a generous act. It is sharing what you know in order to reach an agreed-upon outcome. And if you’re not sharing what you know and you’re not challenging decisions (i.e. creating conflict), you aren’t providing value to the best of your ability.

Reframing your mindset around conflict to be a contribution rather than a disturbance may help you share more of your truth and, ultimately, do better work.

Conflict as consensus-building

Compromise is not always the answer to conflict. Thinking about conflict as a way to build consensus puts emphasis on productivity rather than a hard-to-reach compromise. When consensus-building, you acknowledge that you believe one thing and someone believes another. You’re here, they’re there, and it’s okay to hold different values. Instead of seeking common ground, all parties involved can acknowledge the different places from which everyone comes. These different places —  like experiences and knowledge — are the reason everyone’s a part of the team in the first place.

Pay heed to your team’s diverse contributions to the company by considering conflict an opportunity to build understanding. Conflict need not be considered a difference in opinion; it’s so much more meaningful than that.

Though it is often thought as the antagonist, conflict is actually quite productive, especially at work. It helps you create connections, contribute greatly, and live into your truth. (For a chilling story about the interplay of conflict and truth, check out this article about the Minneapolis Institute of Art’s former director and president, Kaywin Feldman, as she made the decision to bring in a controversial art exhibit).

When approached properly — with humility and understanding — conflict at work leads to better outcomes. Don’t shy away from it; instead, lean into it.

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Want to learn more about living into your truth? Our Content Library is full of articles and videos about your truth, or in Studio/E parlance, desire.

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