Workplace conflict is often seen as inevitable when individuals with diverse backgrounds, cultures, and communication styles come together to work towards a common objective. However, not all conflict is negative, and in certain circumstances, it can be categorized as “healthy.” Orla Leonard, an Organizational Psychologist and Senior Partner at RHR International ,believes in encouraging healthy workplace conflict while promptly addressing and prohibiting unhealthy conflict. It’s important to note that conflicts can also arise from miscommunication rather than actual disagreements.

Miscommunication and differing expectations

Workplace conflict often arises from various factors, and one significant area of contention currently revolves around expectations of work-life balance and generational differences regarding in-office work versus remote work. This issue of work-life balance has become particularly pertinent in recent times, leading to conflicts and misunderstandings that can be deeply challenging to navigate.

The clash of expectations between leaders and teams regarding work arrangements can fuel conflict. Generational differences in attitudes toward coming into the office versus working from home have become sources of tension. The differing needs and preferences of team members, especially across different age groups, can result in misunderstandings and clashes over the appropriate balance between personal and professional life.

Addressing perceived conflict directly is crucial for leaders. Avoiding conflict only allows tensions to escalate into more serious conflicts. Creating an environment where team leaders can resolve perceived passiveness by requesting confirmation of instructions, whether written or verbal, is essential. It’s also important to acknowledge the rapidly evolving nature of human communication and encourage team members to express their preferences and suggest alternatives that promote clear communication and understanding.

How to eliminate unproductive conflict

To eliminate unproductive conflict, it’s important to distinguish between breakdowns in communication and conflicts stemming from personality clashes. Conflict arising from personality clashes often involves emotional expressions such as raised voices, non-cooperation, insults, and heated exchanges. Promptly addressing this negative workplace conflict is crucial to maintain transparency, productivity, and efficiency while minimizing resignations, absenteeism, and project failures.

Leaders should foster an organizational culture that emphasizes strong relationships among team members and management. This can be achieved through written conflict resolution policies, open-door policies that promote transparency, and a willingness to listen to all perspectives, regardless of seniority.

How to encourage fervent debate and healthy conflict

Encouraging fervent debate and healthy conflict is essential. Leaders should strive to create an environment where passionate debates focused on work issues can thrive without personal attacks. This type of conflict, known as healthy conflict, often leads to increased transparency, innovation, productivity, and collaboration within the organization. To foster this environment, it’s crucial to prioritize psychological safety, allowing employees to freely express their opinions, disagree constructively, and make mistakes without fear of punishment or retribution. This fosters diversity of thought and encourages innovative ideas.

Team leaders should acknowledge the perspectives of team members, who often have valuable insights due to their proximity to customers. Creating an environment where team members can embrace healthy conflict, freely express themselves, challenge ideas, and be heard is integral to organizational success. Well-managed tension is viewed as an indication of strong performance, rather than something being wrong. Encouraging clear dialogue around conflicts, compromise, tension, and tradeoffs promotes a culture of innovation rather than antagonism.

Understanding the nuances between perceived conflict, healthy workplace conflict, and unhealthy workplace conflict is crucial for a healthy and well-aligned organizational culture. This understanding should prompt the consideration of additional team-building exercises, a reassessment of communication platforms, and the evaluation of psychological safety levels. An ideal organization encourages healthy conflict and provides leaders with the necessary tools and strategies to effectively address and prevent unhealthy workplace conflict.

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