Taking the Good with the Bad: Why Conflict and Collaboration Go Hand in Hand

Written by on February 4, 2016

We’re taught to believe that conflict is a sign of dysfunction. And indeed, sometimes it is. Just as often, though, conflict is an important – and even necessary—part of a healthy workplace.

It is also inevitable.

As organizations grow and become more complex, competing needs and agendas develop, and conflict is bound to happen. But that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it is often the source of innovation, creative solutions, and a precursor to the kind of collaboration that all organizations value.

Initiatives aimed at reducing conflict are usually doomed to fail. Rather than try to eliminate conflict altogether, enlightened leaders implement systems to manage it so they can reap the benefits without destroying relationships. Systems can include:

  • Guidelines for participants to follow when engaged in conflict with a co-worker.
  • Procedures governing how and when to escalate conflict resolution to the next level.
  • A separate mechanism to extract lessons from every instance of conflict.

While implementing a conflict-management system takes time and commitment, you can reap many of the same benefits by making an effort to inject a little respect into your disagreements. Respectful, open dialogue is the proverbial “magic bullet” that can turn an unpleasant disagreement into a vibrant, open, productive conversation. Here a few steps your team members can follow to turn your workplace conflicts into fuel for collaboration:

Open Your Mind You may think you already know what your colleague thinks, but why not start by assuming you don’t? Assume that he has good reasons for thinking, feeling, and behaving the way he does and allow for the possibility that he might be right. Be well prepared and confident in your own stance, but be open to persuasion as well. And be sure to leave your emotions at the door.

Find Common Ground Before launching into your disagreement, set a collaborative tone by finding something you can agree on. It could be as simple as setting ground rules or a common goal. Or you could even agree on the fact that you’d like to remain on friendly terms afterward.

Listen You’ve probably heard a lot about active listening. This is your opportunity to practice it. Give your counterpart your full attention. Don’t think about what you’re going to say next. Ask questions and really understand his point. Then share your own side so that he can proceed with a similar respectful understanding. And if at any point he feels the need to challenge you or vent his frustration, let him.

Propose a Third Option Take the lead and propose a resolution, but don’t just stick with the position you started with. Incorporate his suggestions and yours and arrive at a third option. If he isn’t comfortable with it, at least you’ve reached a point where you can collaborate on another solution.

We all have an instinct to shy away from conflict if we can. But it occurred for a reason – ignoring it wouldn’t solve anything. Eventually, everything you’ve swept under the rug will cause you to trip when you walk by. It’s best to face it head on, resolve it, and move forward with a better understanding of your coworker’s motives and ideas. A few rocky steps will make you stronger in the long run.