Although I work in conflict resolution and prevention, I know that not all conflict is bad. In fact, healthy, productive conflict is a sign of a flourishing workplace. Conflict can be an engine of creativity and open, respectful exchange of opinion can bring people together, even if they ultimately disagree with one another.
But how do you know if your workplace is involved in a healthy conflict or a dysfunctional one? Here are some things to consider:
1. First, don’t be fooled by outward appearances: A healthy conflict isn’t necessarily one with calm tones and hushed voices and dysfunctional conflict doesn’t have to mean shouting. What matters more is the level of engagement. If everyone is engaged more-or-less equally, that is a sign that the issues are important to everyone and that people are confident that their opinion matters. If there is an imbalance – if some are passionate about the issues while others seem reluctant to share their views or to “tiptoe” around the problem – then you may have a problem. It could be that people don’t care that much. Even worse, it could be a sign that they don’t feel that their opinion, if they share it, will be valued.
2. The subject matter of a conflict reveals a lot. In a healthy conflict, people have differences of opinion over problems and issues, whether this means small day-to-day matters or an organization’s overarching vision. Dysfunctional conflict, on the other hand, is more likely to be focused on people, their personalities, and on (real or alleged) personal shortcomings.
3. A sense of proportion is often the first casualty of dysfunctional conflict. Comments and small incidents take on an outsize significance. In healthy conflict, people are better able to keep things in perspective.
4. I’m not sure whether this is a cause or an effect, but I’ve noticed that dysfunctional conflicts are more likely to be marked by information asymmetries. That is, parties have different access to information (or believe that they do). When there is an information void, gossip, rumours, and confusion are likely to fill it, leaving everyone worse off. In a healthy conflict, there is sharing of information, even if full transparency isn’t possible.
5. In dysfunctional conflicts, phrases like “You always…” or “They never …” are commonly heard. Healthy conflicts focus on specific incidents.
6. A “post-mortem” conversation – in which people examine a failure or worse-than-expected results to see what went wrong – can quickly become a conflict. People tend to see their own possible errors and shortcomings differently than others see them. This is only natural. After all, we know our own intentions, how hard we worked, and the difficulties we faced, and we don’t necessarily know the challenges that others have faced. In a healthy post-mortem conflict, the focus is on understanding: Where did things go wrong and what can I do differently in the future?
7. In fact, it is a general feature of healthy conflict that people take responsibility for their actions, past and present. In contrast, scapegoating is a prominent feature of dysfunctional conflict: People work hard to deflect responsibility from themselves and onto other individuals or groups.
It isn’t possible (or desirable) for life and relationships to be conflict-free. However, we can always strive to make sure that we’re having healthy and productive conflicts.