Conflict Management

Your Ultimate Guide to Embracing Healthy Conflict

Estimated Reading Time:
39 minutes
Last Update:
Nov 24, 2023

Conflict is a “mental struggle resulting from incompatible or opposing needs, drives, wishes, or external or internal demands.”

Conventional wisdom is that conflict is bad for teams and organizations; that conflict reduces productivity and is corrosive to trust and engagement. While it’s true that there are forms of conflict that can reduce productivity, harm teams, and cause stress, there are many other types of conflict that are completely healthy. In fact, productive conflict is fundamental to high performing teams and organizations. It isn’t something to avoid, it’s a given, a necessity, a non-negotiable. 

Everyone from the boardroom to the shop floor requires the ability to work through opposing sides of an issue and come to a resolution in the best interest of customers, shareholders, and employees. That’s because conflict is part of strategic planning, resource allocation, product design, talent management, and just about everything else that happens in an organization. Or at least everything that should happen in an organization. That’s why everyone who works in a team should be good at conflict management. 

Read on for more on the difference between productive and unproductive conflict and how you can get the benefit of the former and minimize the cost of the latter.


Conflict in the Workplace

Why is Conflict Important?

Let’s start with the positive side. What makes productive conflict so important?

Conflict–the process of struggling with opposing perspectives and needs–is fundamental to every aspect of organizational life. It’s how you make strategic decisions about where your organization will compete and how you’ll win. It’s the process to make trade-offs and optimize your allocation of scarce resources. It’s necessary when you stress-test your plans so you can mitigate risks. Conflict is essential to productivity.

The willingness and ability to have productive conflict also underpins communication, trust, and engagement on teams. Having the confidence that your relationships can withstand difficult conversations and the occasional butting of heads allows you to benefit from diversity of thought without fearing that saying the wrong thing will cause a teammate to dislike or disrespect you. 

Finally, we often need to engage in conflict to advocate for ourselves, whether that’s enforcing boundaries, seeking acknowledgement or recognition, or being considered for promotions. Standing up for yourself can help you get the team and the work environment that you deserve.

Necessary Forms of Workplace Conflict

All too often, we say we’re “picking our battles” as if we’re being the enlightened team player. Often what’s really happening is that we’re postponing the contentious conversations that are required on a healthy team. To spare ourselves or our coworkers from the initial discomfort of workplace conflict, we attempt to ignore the proverbial elephant in the room. But procrastination only makes the issue seem more insurmountable when we’re inevitably forced to deal with it. Not to mention that avoiding conflict robs us of the confidence that comes from getting comfortable being uncomfortable. 

The following is a partial list of conflict that your organization should be embracing:

Strategic Conflicts

  • Where in the market will we play and where will we not? Too many organizations dilute their resources trying to respond to every opportunity that’s in front of them. Strategy is about making trade-offs so that you can allocate sufficient resources and have a hope of creating competitive advantage. Strategic planning is a form of productive conflict. 
  • How will we allocate resources to be most successful? Deciding how many people and how much money will go to various departments, programs, or initiatives can be highly contentious. But spreading your resources like peanut butter isn’t the answer. If you don’t provide sufficient resources for the things that matter most, you can call them your “priorities,” but you haven’t prioritized them at all. 
  • What activities will we abandon to focus attention on our priorities? Deciding where to invest is hard but choosing where to divest (or skrimp, or postpone) is even harder. If you don’t make the difficult decision about what you can do without, your people and your resources will be stretched too thin to be effective. Deciding what gets a strategic “no” is one of the most valuable fights you can have. 

Talent Conflicts

  • Which person is best-suited for this role? Selecting one person for a plum assignment or a big promotion means delivering a disappointing message to the other candidates. The decision might even erode relationships if either the hiring manager or the successful candidate doesn’t make an effort to be conciliatory. Despite the risks, making tough and often unpopular talent decisions is a necessary form of conflict when you’re leading a team.  
  • What uncomfortable message would benefit this person’s development? Feedback is seldom thought of as a form of productive conflict, but that’s exactly what it is. Being candid with someone about an unintended impact of their behavior is not what they want to hear (and in tension with what they’re telling themselves). Constructive feedback is difficult to deliver, uncomfortable to receive, and necessary for personal growth and team effectiveness. 
  • How would I like this person to behave differently? Individual differences in style and personality can cause teammates to treat each other in ways that create friction (imagine the close-talker and the introvert, or the risk taker and the prudent plodder). To make teams work, colleagues must be willing to ask each other to treat them in the ways that work best for them. That can be a tough conversation, but without it, resentment often erodes trust and gets in the way of both individual engagement and team performance.

Operational Conflicts

  • What activity should go first in a series? Most people talk about priorities as if it meant deciding what’s more and less important. Priority means “first” and deciding what comes first is often a contentious and hotly debated issue. But the alternative to having the good fight is tyring to do everything at once, stalling, and burning people out. 
  • Who should be involved at this stage to balance inclusivity and speed? Sometimes it’s the same people who are complaining about being too busy who get annoyed if they aren’t invited to a meeting. Odd. But humans derive self-esteem from feeling wanted. So, when you have to choose whom to invite to a meeting, you can find yourself in unexpected conflict. That’s not a conflict to shy away from. You need to find a balance between being inclusive and being agile.

Risk Management Conflicts

  • What questionable assumptions has this person made in their work? Once someone has invested time and effort into drafting a document or building a plan, they might prefer if your response is, “wow, this is perfect!” Unfortunately, not many first drafts are perfect and so spotting assumptions and asking about risk mitigation is a conflict you need to embrace. 
  • What implications are not considered in this plan? In some situations, you aren’t in a position to question the decisions your colleagues have made but you do have legitimate concerns about how that decision will be rolled out. That’s another important scenario in which you need to bring the concerns to the surface so you can work through the conflict constructively.

Get The Team You Deserve

Conflict aversion is just one of the many ways that team dysfunction rears its ugly head. If you want regular tips on how to deal with all kinds of workplace woes, subscribe to my monthly newsletter.

An Introduction to Conflict Avoidance

What Is Conflict Avoidance?

Conflict avoidance is the questionable tactic of hoping that a problem will go away if you ignore it. Rather than addressing an issue and taking the risk that the other parties might not appreciate your position, you keep it to yourself.

What Causes Conflict Avoidance?

If productive conflict is so important, why do people avoid it? 

One reason you might avoid conflict is because you’re avoiding the pain it causes. Did you know that stating or defending an unpopular opinion triggers a similar brain reaction to feeling physical pain? And the pain doesn’t always end once you’ve gotten up the initial courage to voice your concerns or criticism. 

You don’t know how the other person will react to your dissent; there are no guarantees they will recognize your positive intentions; they might react with anxiety or aggression as though you’re an enemy. This is perhaps especially true of people who are not familiar with non-violent communication. Maybe they’ve lived a life of knock-down drag-out fights. So, they come to your conversation with baggage. 

And, when it comes to pain, few things hurt more than feeling that you’ve eroded your relationship with someone important. It’s understandable why many believe the path of least resistance to postpone difficult conflict. Afterall, doesn’t a good team player avoid rocking the boat? 

Disagreeing with a colleague is one thing, but if  the person you disagree with is your boss or someone else who wields power over you, the perceived risk and the potential pain are even more drastic. What if they get angry with you? What if they think less of you, lower your bonus, pass you by for promotion? It’s tempting to keep your mouth shut.

It’s okay to disagree with your boss — 00:00
You probably won’t get fired for speaking your mind — 00:50
1. Connect your point to the goals of your organization —
2. Stick to the facts —
3. Bring in the organization values —

4. Keep it civil — 03:42
Example: “Pierre’s Produce Problem” —
Disagreeing with your boss can be a good thing —
Three questions to ask yourself if you’re concerned —
Could you disagree and come out MORE respected? —

Another reason you might avoid conflict is that you don’t feel you can afford to invest the time that it takes to disagree. You’re on a deadline or swamped with workload already. You don’t feel like you can risk a conflict that will get you even further off track. 

But avoiding conflict is untenable, and not just because it leads to you walking on eggshells. It’s untenable because it stalls forward progression on issues, erodes trust with colleagues, and causes us to carry the stress and resentment as toxic overhead. Conflict avoidance is a false peace, where we pretend that everything’s fine and watch it gradually get worse and worse, rather than addressing it and getting to the other side.

The Hidden Cost of Conflict Avoidance: Conflict Debt

In The Good Fight, I coined the term “conflict debt” to describe the sum of all the contentious issues that you need to address but instead leave undiscussed and unresolved. Conflict debt can be as innocuous as withholding feedback and as profound as continually deferring a strategic decision. 

To understand why you get into conflict debt, think of financial debt. You get into financial debt when you use credit to buy things you otherwise can’t afford. You want something, maybe even need it, but you can’t pay for it at the time, so you use credit. You promise yourself that you’ll pay it off as soon as you get your next paycheck, but if you’re like half of American credit card holders, you carry that balance over from month to month. The debt mounts, and over time, it gets harder and harder to get out from under it.

What Does Conflict Avoidance Look Like?

As with financial debt, conflict debt starts off innocently. An issue comes up that’s a little too hot to handle, so you defer it. You promise yourself that you’ll revisit it when things are less busy, or when cooler heads prevail. You buy yourself time, but the issue doesn’t spontaneously resolve. Instead, it becomes more contentious and everyone entrenches. That’s conflict debt. You’re anxious, trying to steer clear of the topic and maybe even avoid your colleagues to sidestep the dispute. (Have you ever taken the long way around the office so you don’t run into a disgruntled colleague?) Although you’re not having to experience the discomfort of the conflict, you are carrying the frustration at your lack of progress, the resentment at your colleague’s perspectives, and the guilt associated with your role in the stalemate.  Conflict debt weighs you down. 

Avoiding the issue is only one path to conflict debt. Another is to avoid the opposition. In this case, you broach the topic but exclude people who might disagree or cause tension, surrounding yourself with those who are already onside. For example, you’re in engineering and you’re working on a new feature. You don’t let marketing in on it because you don’t want to hear their feedback that it’s not what customers are willing to pay for. Pretending the opposition doesn’t exist won’t make it disappear. It will resurface when your opponents kill your plan or, worse, just leave it to fail. 

There’s a third way to get into conflict debt: avoid the friction. Even if you discuss the difficult subject, there’s still room to get yourself into trouble if you veer safely away from the distressing parts of the discussion. When you make it clear (either intentionally or inadvertently) that nothing antagonistic should taint your conversation, you start to rack up conflict debt. We often use code for this; “let’s take it offline” is a great way to avoid having to deal with the conflict. Everyone smiles and pretends that they’ll actually come back to it at some point and then returns to business as usual. Stifling dissent creates conflict debt. 

As with financial debt, the best way to keep conflict debt from growing into something unmanageable is by paying it off as quickly and efficiently as possible. Just as a single year of avoiding unnecessary expenditures in order to pay down debt can lop off years of making interest payments, so good-faith attempts at addressing one’s conflict debt can turn mountains of future stress and chaos into manageable molehills.

Quiz: Are You In Conflict Debt?

If you’d prefer this quiz in a format you can print, I’ve got a PDF you can download here.

Paying Down Your Conflict Debt: How to Overcome Conflict Avoidance

Once you reflect on the areas where you’re in conflict debt, it’s time to start paying it down.

How to Raise a Difficult Issue

One way to start to address your conflict avoidance is to create a forum to talk about the issues that have been off the table. You can broach the subject with your boss and say, “This issue has been unresolved for a couple of months and I can see how it’s holding up other decisions. Would it make sense to put together a document to bring everyone up to speed and then set aside some time in our meeting to come to a resolution?” 

Notice that the phrase “would it make sense to” softens your request and leaves room for your manager to decline the offer. That makes it a safer approach if conflict avoidance is a problem on your team. If you want to strengthen the statement, you can shift to, “what would it take to come to a resolution on this?”

Other alternatives for chipping away at your conflict debt would be to pick a relatively innocuous part of the issue that you could solve, host a meeting where you talk about how you’ll address the issue without forcing a resolution, or capture the issues on a shared document or Slack site to allow people to engage with the issue without the pressure of a face-to-face conversation

How to Make a Conflict More Constructive

Once the issue is on the table, you can make the discussion less contentious and more comfortable by focusing on your colleagues’ perspectives and positions before you advocate for your own. 

Start your difficult conversations with a statement and then a question. For example, “We have faced this choice between upgrading this location or closing it for several weeks. How are you thinking about this decision?” This strategy gets your colleagues’ cards on the table first and gives you a sense of what matters to them in the deliberations.

As they share their perspectives, ask more open-ended questions to get at the values, beliefs, and motives underlying their position. Try these:

  • What is this issue about for you?
  • What is the most important criteria for making this decision?
  • What would have to be true for you to sign on?
  • Tell me about your thought process on that.
  • What do you believe is at stake in this decision?
  • What are we missing that we need to pay more attention to? 

When you feel like you understand their position and why it matters to them, take a stab at articulating what you’re hearing and sensing. You might say, “You’re worried about the knock on effects of closing a location when it would mean customers need to travel 30 minutes to the nearest alternative. You want to make sure we’re thinking through the customer lens as we make this call.” 

If you did a good job of summarizing their perspective, they’ll let you know. If not, they’ll correct you and you’ll get another chance to summarize and make them feel heard. Then you have an entree to share how you’re thinking about the decision and what matters to you. 

When you focus on understanding and validating the other person’s point of view before advocating for your own, you’ll find you create a dynamic that’s more like joint problem solving and less like fighting. 

For more on this technique, check out this video:

Your conflict debt might be quite high already if it’s been a habit for a long time, but it only gets higher the longer it’s allowed to collect interest. Pay down your conflict debt by paying off the easy items, then start chipping away at the big ones. You will likely learn a lot about yourself and the people in your life, for good or bad, while doing this—and that’s a good (albeit often uncomfortable) thing.

Healthy Versus Unhealthy Conflict

Conflict isn’t inherently good or bad, it’s simply a struggle between incompatible or opposing needs, wishes, and demands. The quality of a conflict depends on whether it helps you get to a better outcome without inflicting too much damage in the process. But keep in mind, whether a conflict is healthy or not, it’s still likely to be uncomfortable, so don’t assume that discomfort is a sign that you’re doing it wrong.

What Does Healthy (Productive) Conflict Look Like?

Healthy conflict moves you forward. It unlocks something. When you’re engaged in productive conflict, you’re searching for insight, generating possibilities, and moving to action. You’re working through competing priorities to find the optimal answer for your organization. 

I describe productive conflict as the feeling of tension; it’s stretching you to think in new ways. It’s uncomfortable, but the discomfort is something like practicing yoga–you’re feeling the pain, but you know it’s making you stronger, more flexible, and more agile.

Productive conflict isn’t only good for your business, it also strengthens relationships because it opens a line of communication and improves the connection between you. When you broach a contentious topic and carefully work your way to the other side of it, you make it feel safer to do it again. You gradually enhance psychological safety. For a great overview of the concept of team psychological safety pioneered by Amy Edmonson, check out this article.

Some people make the mistake of thinking that the absence of conflict is the best way to ensure psychological safety but in reality, the truest and most robust form of psychological safety is knowing that your team can fight and come out the other side unscathed.

There are a few hallmarks of healthy conflict. They include:


I’m astounded by how many conflicts result from people not listening to each other, talking past one another, and not getting to the core issue in a way that the conflict can be resolved. Each time one person misses what the other was trying to say, the intensity (and volume, and frustration) increases, making it less likely that either is going to listen to what comes next. This article provides guidance on how to listen in a way to prevent many conflicts and resolve the rest.


A constructive conflict is peppered with questions. Questions bring oxygen to the conversation and demonstrate that people are eager to understand how others see the situation. Start with mostly open-ended questions to expand and deepen the conversation. Then, once you’re narrowing in on a solution, use closed-ended questions to lock in the commitment.


Another sign that the conflict is moving things forward while enhancing rather than eroding trust is when parties to the conflict start to empathize with one another. This is evident when people start to change their thinking, their tone, and their position in response to the conversation. The result is that the options evolve and the discussion generates forward momentum toward a resolution.

Issue Focus

A list of productive conflict characteristics wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the importance of keeping the discussion issue-focused. Issue-focused means that you stick with objective points and avoid making the conversation nasty or personal by criticizing the person instead of the idea (e.g., “You’re in such a big rush to do this.”), or by overstepping and claiming to understand what another person is thinking or feeling (e.g., “You think a client event is a stupid idea.”)  Productive conflict focuses on the merits and drawbacks of the proposed ideas rather than the traits or behaviors of the people around the table.


While productive conflict keeps comments about others highly objective, the complete opposite is true when it comes to talking about yourself. Productive conflict is full of moments when you share your desires and fears openly. Most times when we feel strongly enough to fight for something at work, it’s because of something we value or believe. When that’s the case, it’s courageous and valuable to be transparent. For example, you might say something like, “I want to support this plan. I just can’t shake the feeling that we’d be turning our back on all our long-term customers who count on this service.” When you get these values and beliefs out in the open, it’s easier to know what you’re working with and much more likely that you’ll find a solution that works for you.

To sum it up in one statement, productive conflict uses only what you can see from others and shares everything they can’t see about you.

What Does Unhealthy (Unproductive) Conflict Look Like?

Conflict can detract from a healthy team in one of two ways. It can be unhealthy because it inflicts harm on the people involved, or it can be unproductive because it wastes time and energy without creating a path forward. (Or, it can be both unhealthy and unproductive.) 

Unlike the feeling of tension and stretch inherent in healthy conflict, unhealthy conflict feels like friction. Think of it like getting a blister that chafes and ultimately opens a wound that is painful and slows you down. 

That friction comes in different forms:

Active, Aggressive, Overt Conflict

Aggressive conflict is a knock-down, drag-out, voices raised melee. It’s bold and brash and all about “defeating” the other person. Aggressive conflict can be personal and nasty as in the case where people insult one another or refuse to listen. But aggressive conflict isn’t necessarily personal or unhealthy; it could be that the parties are unyielding in their positions and unwilling to shift or compromise–it’s less personal, but no more productive. Either way, aggressive entrenched conflict is bad for teams.

Passive Aggressive Conflict

Passive-aggressiveness is the indirect expression of hostility or disagreement. It can show up as a persistent negative attitude, such as resentment or disinterest. It can also manifest in resistance — both hidden (e.g., procrastination) and obvious (e.g., sarcasm). Passive-aggressiveness is often a result of the unwillingness to address contentious issues constructively, either because it feels unsafe or like too much effort. 

Passive-aggressiveness is costly for both teams and individuals. For the organization, the negative effects include delayed decision-making, poor identification and mitigation of risks, and delayed execution. For the team, unexpressed but obvious frustrations erode trust, interfere with communication, and contribute to resentment. For individuals, feeling the friction of the underlying issue without having the forum to resolve it causes undue stress.

If you want some tips for dealing with passive-aggressive behavior on your team, I’ve got you covered here.

Signs Your Workplace Conflict is Unhealthy

It’s easy to imagine what unproductive conflict looks like. It’s the opposite of all the things that make conflict healthy.

Here are a few signs that your conflict has turned unproductive.

  • There are no moments of silence, only frequent interruptions.
  • People say “I” and “You” frequently but rarely say “We.”
  • There are more statements and assertions than questions.
  • People repeat the same ideas becoming more adamant.
  • The volume goes up as people become frustrated at not making progress.
  • People make assumptions and jump to conclusions about what others think or feel.
  • People stop talking and disengage.
  • The conversation gets stuck on grievances from the past. 
  • People defend themselves, saying “that’s not what I said” or “that’s not what I meant!”
  • The conversation is full of adjectives, subjective statements, and judgments 
  • People are guarded about the motives behind their positions

What Causes Unproductive Conflict?

The usual suspects when it comes to unproductive conflict are poor communication skills, having a lack of role clarity or role alignment with one another, getting overwhelmed, letting differences get in the way of unity, or having cross-purposes with one another when it comes to priorities. All of these agents of chaos can lead to people being at one another’s throats instead of in one another’s confidence.

Here are the most common causes of unhealthy or unproductive conflict:

Poor Communication

Many unproductive and unhealthy workplace conflicts start with miscommunication. One common source of conflict is when you communicate your expectations in unclear langauge, which often happens when you use too many ambiguous adjectives. If you ask for someone to be quick, creative, or collaborative, they might interpret those expectations differently than you and deliver something that disappoints or frustrates you. Friction and unhealthy conflict ensues. 

You are also likely to trigger conflict if you fill your statements with absolutes such as ALWAYS, NEVER,  or EVERYONE. Absolutes leave little room for negotiation and can make people feel defensive or combative. In some cases, the person might agree with your point in general and only take offense because of the absolute. For example, you want to get your point across that many people want to work from home at least two days per week but if you say, “EVERYONE wants to work from home sometimes,” you leave yourself open to a fight about whether it’s 90% or a 100%, instead of having a reasoned conversation about the right hybrid work model. 

Poor Listening

Miscommunication is a two-way street. While it’s possible that the person sharing the message did a poor job and botched the pass, it’s just as likely that you fumbled the catch. That might be because you’re distracted and not hearing fully. It can also be because you’re listening to the facts but missing the emotions, beliefs, or motivations beneath the surface–failing to read between the lines. Even your inner dialogue interferes with effective listening if your busy judging, defending, or relating to the person while they’re talking. Yup, even in the seemingly positive scenario where you’re relating and empathizing while your colleague is talking, you’re still listening to your own story, rather than theirs. When you fail to listen well, you often interpret the other person’s intentions, needs, and wishes accurately, which can cause the conversation to quickly deteriorate into something unpleasant or even combative.  

Learn more about listening to neutralize conflict here.

Misaligned Goals

Another source of unhealthy conflict is when the parties are working toward different goals, or perhaps toward the same goals but with different priorities. Misaligned goals might be explicit, as in the situation where two departments are held accountable for different, competing metrics. Alternatively, misaligned goals might come from individuals with different views of the best course of action. Either way, if you have different definitions of success, it’s difficult to come to a constructive resolution and you’re likely in for an unhealthy conflict.

Self-Centered Behavior

It’s possible that unhealthy conflict comes from self-serving people who don’t empathize with their colleagues. Alternatively they might empathize and just not care that they’re causing trouble. There are self-centered, nasty, toxic people in the workplace. It’s not the most likely source of unhealthy conflict, but it is a possibility. This guide provides more information to help you determine if your workplace has become toxic and if so, what to do about it.

Lack of Role Clarity or Alignment

If you don’t have clarity about what’s expected of you and how your role is interdependent with that of your colleagues, it can create friction. One risk is that no one acknowledges ownership for a task and the lack of accountability means an important ball gets dropped. Another possibility is that multiple people believe they own a task or get to make a call and they clash over differing preferences. Sorting out who is responsible for what aspects of a task can help prevent unproductive conflict or to resolve a conflict once it has started.

Different Values, Personalities, and Styles

The best and worst thing about working with other people is that we’re profoundly different. Diversity is the source of a team’s strength but also its weakness. Differing personalities and styles may rub each other the wrong way, and differing values may put us at cross-purposes entirely. 

Becoming more self-aware can help you appreciate the impact of your behavior on others. This series highlights a variety of dimensions on which you and your colleagues might differ. Read through one or more of them to appreciate what each of you brings to the table.

How to Resolve Unhealthy Conflict

There are a few approaches that will help you transform an unhealthy or unproductive conflict into a constructive conversation. The goal is to get to 1) a plan that works for the organization, 2) a heightened level of trust among your teammates, and 3) more manageable level of stress for you.

Keep these guidelines in mind:

  • Try not to fight until you’ve got your emotions in check. If necessary, buy yourself some time by asking for a moment to collect your thoughts. 
  • Use as few words as possible. Use open-ended questions to get the other person talking. Try saying, “What’s at stake here?” or “Take me through your thinking?” or “How do you see this playing out?” The more the other person is talking, the more positively they’ll feel about you.
  • Be transparent. If you’re feeling or thinking something, be candid about it upfront. Try saying, “I’m disappointed because I thought we had already made that call” or “I’m worried that approach won’t work in my business line.” There’s strength in candor. Conflict is more manageable when you’ve got nothing to hide.
  • Focus more on the solution than the problem. Keep the conversation pointed forward, not backward. Try “We’re both looking for a way to win this account,” or “We both want to contribute to the team.” That will trigger a problem-solving mindset and get you out of the back and forth. “We both want to do the right thing. How do we figure out what the right thing is?”

How to Resolve a Task-Based Conflict

If you’re trying to work through a task-based conflict where you disagree with your colleagues about a goal or a plan, you can use these conflict resolution steps. 

The most important step in resolving a task-based conflict is to declare who owns the decision. If you own the decision, you can listen intently, extract the value from your colleagues’ perspectives, and then make the call. Don’t let the conflict drag on. 

If you don’t own the decision, your responsibility is to expand your colleague’s thinking and help them see all the options, benefits, and risks. Once you’ve said your piece, back down. Again, don’t let the conflict drag on.

Regardless of who owns the decision, use the following approaches to create a productive dialogue.

  • Focus on the characteristics of a good outcome. “What would have to be included for this to work for you?” Then, once you’ve listened and paraphrased their criteria, add in your own.
  • Expose different perspectives. “How are you approaching this from the Finance point of view?” Again, listen, reflect on what you heard, then share what’s unique about your perspective.
  • Ask about different stakeholders. For example, “What will the client’s procurement folks be focused on?” Then, complement that perspective with the POV of stakeholders that you’re familiar with, such as, “I’m thinking about it from the client’s IT department and what will matter most to them.”
  • Differentiate between what needs to be done and how to do it. In many cases, the conflict stems not from differences of opinion about the desired outcome, but opposing views on how to get there. If you’re aligned on what to do but arguing over how, you might ask, “How could we do this to minimize that risk?” (This gives some control to people who don’t own the decision but can have a say in execution.)

When it is clear who owns the decision, a task-based conflict shouldn’t take too long. You disagree, argue, struggle, try to understand, and then make the best decision. The worst thing you can do is get to this point and say, “let’s agree to disagree.” More on the problem of letting a task-based conflict drag on here.

Video – Conflict Resolution in the Workplace: Task-Based Conflict

How to Resolve a Personality-Based Conflict

Many of the conflicts that erupt on a team aren’t about the issue at all–they’re about different styles and values or about the ways that people treat one another that cause friction in the relationship. 

The key thing is to recognize a personality-based conflict as something distinct from an issue-based one. Once you recognize that the problem is  ‘I don’t like how they operate,’ rather than ‘I disagree about this substantive issue,’ you can start to reframe your concerns.

  • Speak objectively when you speak about others. Describe what you see and hear (or don’t see or hear). Instead of thinking “you’re being disrespectful,” consider what is making you interpret their behavior as disrespectful. It’s easier to resolve the issue if you think “you are talking over me” (a behavior that the person can change) versus “you don’t respect me” (which frames your whole relationship as adversarial). 
  • Describe how their behavior is impacting you. For example, if you’re frustrated because a colleague is correcting grammar in your rough draft, you might tell them, “When you focus on typos and grammar on the first draft, I feel like I’m missing your input on the who, what, where, when, and why questions that I want to resolve first.”
  • Share the story you’re telling yourself and see if it’s accurate. For example, imagine that your boss keeps answering questions that were directed at you. You might be starting to lose your confidence. If you say, “When you answer for me, I get the sense that you don’t have confidence in me.” Your boss might correct you and say, “Oh, that’s not it at all, I’m just so excited about this!” That might do the trick. If not, you could ask, “How could you signal to everyone else in the room that you have confidence in me and my plan?”
  • Ask for advice from colleagues and those who know the person well. Never gossip or complain, but it’s fine to share what you’re seeing and experiencing. For example, “Every time I’m working quietly, Sam comes and interrupts me. I don’t have time to chat. How can I politely enforce some boundaries. You know Sam, what might work?” 

Remember, as much as it’s part of our language to say, ‘they make me feel x,’ no one can make you feel anything. You are interpreting their behavior in a way that makes you feel a given way. That also means that you can choose to feel differently.

How to Resolve a Discrimination or Harassment Issue

I am biased toward taking personal accountability when relationships aren’t going well; in most instances, the best person to rely on to make things better is yourself. But there’s an essential caveat to this approach; it doesn’t work if you are being harassed or discriminated against. If you are on the receiving end of bullying, sexual or physical harassment, or discrimination, you need to go to human resources (or in the case of criminal behavior, perhaps even the authorities). Help them help you by documenting your interactions with detailed descriptions of what you experience and time and date stamps on everything.

Building a Productive/Healthy Conflict Habit

Many of the resources for conflict management and conflict resolution focus on the contentious conversation. These include books such as Difficult Conversations by Sheila Heen and Douglas Stone and Radical Candor by Kim Scott. These books will help create the right mindset and build the necessary skillset to work through a crucial conversation constructively.

The problem is that steeling ourselves for the difficult conversations requires tremendous energy and resilience. My goal is to teach teams a new way of engaging in conflict that requires much less fortitude. That requires that you move beyond thinking of conflict as an event and instead think about conflict management as something you need to be doing all the time–a habit rather than an event. The good news is that the more frequently your team engages in conflict, the lower the impact. Think of it as regular flossing as a way of avoiding a root canal. 

Once you develop a conflict habit, people are less likely to take things personally, emotions are less likely to derail the conversation, and instead of getting defensive, people just work through the issue and move on.

Setting Clear Expectations

Holding expectations of someone that you fail to communicate effectively is a sure fire way to create unhealthy conflict. I refer to this phenomenon as the “Valentine’s Day Effect.” To avoid this problem, invest the time and energy to be specific and clear about what you’re expecting of one another. 

Start any new assignment (e.g., new job, new project, new task) with a conversation about what success looks like for everyone involved. Start by asking broad questions to leave lots of room for the answer to go in a different direction than you initially thought. For example, ask, “What would be a win for you?” or, “What does success look like,” or “What needs to be included in a solution?” If you do this each and every time, your colleagues will start answering these questions without you having to ask. Clarifying expectations will become a habit.

Normalize Productive Tension

Another important way to keep conflict healthy and avoid having it feel like destructive friction is to map out the tensions that should be a part of your decision-making process. Doing this helps dispel the rumor that teammates should “pull in the same direction” and “not rock the boat” and starts to instill a mindset that productive tension is necessary for optimizing across competing priorities.

You can map out these constructive tensions by doing an exercise with your team. For each role, answer the following questions:

  • What is the unique value your role brings to the team? What are you paying attention to that others aren’t? What expertise can the team count on you to bring?
  • Which stakeholders are counting on you to advocate for them? Who isn’t in the room who needs you to voice their perspective? 
  • What tension are you obligated to put on our deliberations? What questions do you need to ask to evaluate the viability of our options (e.g. is it scalable? Is it differentiated? Is it secure?)

There’s more on this approach in this article in Harvard Business Review. 

To hear the silly story of how I had the epiphany to create this exercise, watch this short video.

Increase the Diversity of Thinking

If you want to start introducing productive conflict to a team that is generally conflict-avoidant, you can add low-intensity tension with one of more of the following techniques:

Test the Facts

Instead of taking the facts your colleague’s share as truth, ask them for more information. “You’re proposing that we roll out this program first to our high-end customers based on the idea that they are more digitally savvy than other segments. What are you basing that on?” This approach increases the quality of decision-making without directly challenging the proposal.  

Explore a Different Side

If a conversation is focused on one view of a problem, introduce productive tension by shedding light on a different angle. “We’ve done a good job at making this program simple. What could we do to make it sticky?” That’s better than coming at it as a criticism by saying, “That idea isn’t very sticky.” Commenting on a legitimate strength of the argument and then adding a stretch won’t feel as adversarial.

Represent a Stakeholder

When the discussion takes one stakeholder’s perspective, shift around to view it from a different point of view. “I agree completely that this program is going to be a winner for our customers. How do you think it’s going to land with our operations team?” This technique is more effective if you switch up the stakeholder group that you advocate for. Keep a list of key stakeholders and mention one that isn’t being considered in your team’s deliberations.

Add a Contingency

Even if you agree with a proposed plan, it’s worth considering other ways the situation might play out. “I agree that’s the way to go because I also think we’re going to get our project to market first. How would the launch plan change if the competition beat us to market?” By encouraging your team to consider alternative scenarios, you’ll expose assumptions, reduce groupthink, and help mitigate any risks inherent in even a good plan.

Define the Terms

Conflict often erupts when everyone has a different view of what they agreed to. Prevent this issue by asking people to define the words they’re using. “We all agree that we need to increase the accountability in our leadership ranks by having more consequences. What do we mean by consequences?” Conflict avoidant people tend to leave these kinds of terms undefined for fear of being seen as questioning authority.

Imagine the Implications

Take the team’s thinking one or two steps further by probing about the impact of a proposed decision. “Ok, I think this plan makes sense. If we roll that out in the summer, where do we expect peak production? How will that play out?” Even if the plan has implications that aren’t ideal, knowing what to expect will make it less likely that surprises trigger finger-pointing and blame.

Surface Tensions

As a deliberation proceeds, stay attuned to subtle differences in language that might suggest they aren’t fully aligned. Probe to see if you can improve their understanding. “I think I hear slightly different interpretations. Can we take another pass at what people think we’re agreeing to?” If you have teammates who struggle to be direct about their concerns or disagreements, you will help considerably by catching these subtle differences in language that might reveal substantial misalignments. 

Highlight Assumptions

Helping your colleagues spot the assumptions underlying a plan can prevent unhealthy conflicts down the road. “This plan seems to depend on how this plays out in Florida. What assumptions are we making about Orlando?” You don’t even have to challenge the assumption, the value is in surfacing it so that the team can decide whether it’s legitimate or not.

Make Room for Dissent

Sometimes the best thing you can do is to invite others to surface their concerns. “What are we missing here? What issues could someone find with this plan? If someone in Supply Chain were to critique this plan, what would they say?” Your willingness to make room for dissent might be all that’s required to encourage a quieter team member to speak up for the good of the team. 

Using these relatively low-impact techniques will establish a productive conflict habit on your team. Eventually, you’ll be using productive conflict to strengthen all your decision making. The other benefit is that you’ll start to become accustomed to the discomfort of tension and will be less likely to experience it as personal friction. 


[1] Conflict Definition & Meaning – Merriam-Webster​

[2] Credit Card Debt: Most Americans Don’t Pay Bill in Full – Ethan Wolff-Mann | Money

[3] Neurobiological correlates of social conformity and independence during mental rotation – Gregory S Berns & Jonathan Chappelow, et al. | PubMed

[4] What is NVC? – Center for Nonviolent Communication

[5] Why conflict is good in the workplace – Liane Davey | Fast Company

[6] Americans lean heavily on credit cards amid inflation – Jessica Dickler | CNBC

[7] Difficult Conversations – Bestseller by Douglas Stone & Sheila Heen

[8] Radical Candor: Feedback Coaching, Consulting And Training – Radical Candor

[9] An Exercise to Help Your Team Feel More Comfortable with Conflict – Liane Davey | HBR