Why We Need Conflict At Work And How To Fight Fair

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John M. O’Connor (Career Pro Inc.) is a multi-year career coach, outplacement and career services leader based in North Carolina. 

Open your organization to diverse perspectives

Companies, both small and large, say they want new ideas, lively conversation and debate. However, free and open communication has slowed or ceased to exist in some dangerous ways. In a recent conversation with one of my executive coaching clients, she said, “John, it’s simple. We don’t debate great ideas that will help the company anymore. Everyone is afraid to voice their opinion because people get offended.”

As I probed, she told me that although the company wants to recognize that cognitive diversity matters, they worry about offending certain employees and creating hard feelings. She added that almost any comment or content seems contentious today and that sensitivity has led to anonymous complaints. When I asked how this has affected morale and the company’s growth prospects, she stated, “It may not show up in the revenue numbers now, but it will.”

Although this is just one conversation and one opinion of an executive at one company, I have found that avoiding conflict and strong opinions is a growth inhibitor. Ensuring people are comfortable certainly has its place in the workplace but as thousands of people return to offices, there needs to be more open communication and, dare I say, more conflict. That said, to develop the best relationships — personal and professional — there needs to be some ground rules for how to fight fair. Here are three ways to fight fair at work.

1. Schedule the conflict.

Why not encourage debate by scheduling a time to talk? It’s a lot in how you set it up. Send a message and encourage all parties to bring ideas to a live in-person or online session where everyone gets a say and has a time frame to make their argument. When I say schedule, I do mean schedule, too. Run it like the ESPN long-running show Pardon the Interruption. It can be free-wheeling, but each person should have time to make their argument, be tested by answering questions and share their strong opinion. Rein it in by having at least some loose parameters around the time they can share and cross-examine anyone else. Keep close to those minutes, but let the arguments get light. 

2. Slow “scope creep.”

The conflict should be focused on a specific problem to solve and not be a history lesson on lost causes or past arguments. You could say this in an email to the participants:

I am scheduling a one-hour discussion and debate about our current clients’ needs and issues. Bring in your best arguments for or against moving forward with our proposed program. The meeting will be on Friday at 1 p.m. and take one hour. You will each have five minutes to present your best case, then I will make a decision by Monday on our course of action. I want you to be of strong opinion and give me your best ideas! Although we have other issues, let’s focus this discussion on the program. 

Let people prepare. Set the ground rules. Put a ring around the needs. 

3. Keep it professional.

Remind people involved that just hearing the debate and discussion will help you and that even if their recommendations don’t seem to win or carry the day they are still welcome. Saying things like this and keeping this spirit in a debate and hard discussion matter. I suggest you include the following (or something similar) in your opening statements:

Even if your idea does not get chosen, I appreciate your strong opinions. As a reminder, there are not winners and losers here personally. No matter what decision I render, just hearing your point of view will help me form a better plan for the company and all of us. As a rule, let’s focus on the project. If someone says something that you disagree with, I want to hear it, but of course, let’s focus our energy on what is best for all of us professionally. 

Logic and facts passionately presented will rule the day; Encourage participants to bring evidence for any arguments they make. 

The best teams and the best organizations welcome open debate. They don’t encourage gossip or conflict for conflict’s sake. If you are an employee, know that leaders want to hear from you but in a logical way. Make your points with energy and some emotion. You can also mitigate your risk of offending others when invited to debate and speak your mind on critical events, projects and programs if you come highly prepared. A few tips:

• Bring in easy-to-share links to references and sources for the points you will make.

• Write down several bigger-picture questions you want to ask before the meeting. This will keep you focused during the discussion.

• Ask if it is OK to submit some background material before the discussion and debate (sometimes this is welcome).

• Acknowledge other ideas politely as you move into your own.

• Have a compelling wrap-up statement.

To create a more cohesive organization, try encouraging parameters and rules about debate and disagreement. Establishing a timeframe with ground rules says you respect all parties and want to create a fair playing field. If you can conduct and orchestrate healthy discussions that are free of personal attacks and foster a win-win spirit, you can create a better team atmosphere that benefits everyone in the long term.

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John M. O’Connor (Career Pro Inc.) is a multi-year career coach, outplacement and career services leader based in North Carolina. Read John M. O’Connor’s full executive profile here.