ATD Blog

Conflict Can Be Good for Teams

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Wherever there is independent thought, there will be conflict. I use this motto to keep a healthy perspective on conflict. The opposite of conflict is not peace, it is group think. In my opinion, group think is deadly.

  • Group think stifles innovation. As the group pushes for maintaining the status quo, it will get by with a few tweaks here and there to provide a cosmetic face lift. The peer pressure exerted on dissenters and non-conformists will silence them—at least in the short-run.
  • Group think will send your top talent packing, because their non-traditional ways of thinking are criticized and their non-traditional contributions are discounted or ignored.
  • Group think blinds you to the changing realities that stand to render your produces or services obsolete. The group will rationalize decisions in the face of contradictory effort. Ultimately, complacency in the decision-making process will flourish and discuss will diminish.
    Indeed, absence of conflict often means that team members do not feel comfortable voicing their opinion. Lack of trust, presence of group think, and feelings of powerlessness are the most significant reasons for an absence of conflict. If voicing their opinion never has an impact then why continue to extend the effort? Over time, these three toxic elements will create employees that no longer care about the outcomes.

Simply stated, nurture conflict is you want to:

  • stay fresh
  • create a dynamic environment that’s responsive to change
  • challenge your people to grow and excel
  • create a powerful team that’s capable of capturing the market.

    Conflict Can Be a Powerful Tool

Conflict, when managed well, forces you to think, to challenge your assumptions, and to consider other perspectives. Well-managed conflict introduces new information into the equation that then must be addressed in some way. It opens up avenues of exploration that didn’t exist previously, and has the potential to revolutionize your team or organization.


Conversely, conflict that is poorly managed or left unresolved results in emotionally charged situations. You—and your team—become vested in being right and proving a point. Strong emotional biases begin to work against sound critical thinking. Critical thinking, by its very definition, requires you to objectively examine different viewpoints and supporting arguments.

How Do You Manage Conflict Well?

  • Create an environment where conflict is encouraged. Seek out people with different opinions and engage them in issue-based conversations. Encourage your team members to play devil’s advocate and pick out the flaws in the ideas that have been presented. Take steps consistent with your cultural environment to elicit dissent. Be judicious in using positional authority to settle a matter.
  • Embrace the personal aspect of conflict. Ditch the phrase: “Nothing personal…” because that’s just not true. All conflict is personal. Instead, focus on the reason why the conflict exists. What the source of the difference. Is it a difference in understanding? Is it a difference in agenda or goals? Is it a difference in perspective? Learn how to ask probing questions until the personal aspects of conflict are surfaced. Only then have you positioned the team for true resolution that moves the transaction forward while preserving the relationships.
  • Clarify the goal. What counts as success for you and the other person or the team? What does that look like? What does that smell like? How will you know when you achieved it? Without clear understanding of the goals of each party, conflict is almost impossible to resolve. You need to know what the end game is for everyone involved if you’re going to be able to identify points of agreement and put points of disagreement in a proper context.
  • Acknowledge and celebrate points of agreement. Points of agreement provide the foundation for working toward a resolution. Far too often, we breeze past those points so that we can dig into the nitty-gritty details of where there is disagreement. This is a big mistake. Solely focusing on disagreements implicitly signals confrontation whereas celebrating the common ground that you do have and looking for ways to build upon that common ground signals camaraderie.
  • Prioritize points of disagreement. Not all disagreements are created equal. Through discussion, identify the significance of each item and tackle the most significant first. If you’re able to work through the most difficult matter, the rest will be a piece of cake. You would’ve established momentum and trust and a desire for full resolution. After all, if we could resolve that matter, certainly we can work through everything else.
    Before you can benefit from conflict, you first have to establish a healthy environment in which conflict can occur. If you don’t have that environment, challenge yourself as to what habits you may have that are silencing the inner voices of your team. Encourage dissent, discuss and clarify goals, find common points of agreement, and then prioritize points of disagreement. Tackle the difficult matters and establish momentum for healthy discourse. Then watch the dynamics of your team change as they freely share opinions, insights, and innovation.
About the Author

Tiffany Crosby is an entrepreneur, author, writer, researcher, and trainer with more than 20 years of practical business experience. A graduate of Duquesne University and Franklin University, Crosby founded Petra Learning LLC in November 2011 after approximately 14 years at Ernst and Young LLP, where she was an executive director responsible for business advisory services. She combines her passions to develop fun, engaging, and innovative learning solutions for teams and companies. 

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