Are you facing a lot of conflict in your team and wondering why it always has to feel so uncomfortable? I want to take a minute to clarify the difference between healthy and unhealthy conflict. That way you’ll know whether the discomfort you’re experiencing is necessary and beneficial, or if it’s time to stop putting up with it and start changing it.

Tension = Healthy Conflict

All right, so what’s the difference? There’s a characteristic of healthy conflict that I call tension. If you’re in healthy conflict on your team, it should feel like you’re being stretched to think about things differently and to consider different perspectives.

That’s healthy conflict, and it comes from a lot of different places. It comes from the fact that people on teams have different roles; they have different expertises from one another. At your team you may even be representing different stakeholders – somebody on your team is representing the buyer at your organization, and someone else is representing the user or consumer.

That means you are and should be thinking about issues differently, lobbying for different answers, and that’s going to feel uncomfortable. It may even feel like unproductive conflict. But it’s actually a stretch; a healthy and productive kind of discomfort. I think of this tension or stretch as being like yoga. It’s good for you. Sure, it’s uncomfortable, but it’s all in the pursuit of something better.

Friction = Unhealthy Conflict

The other kind of conflict your team may be experiencing isn’t positive at all. This sort of conflict feels more like friction than tension. It’s the kind of conflict that comes from people refusing to listen to one another, or from people who won’t put up with anyone who has a different answer or style than they do. It’s the kind of conflict that makes you question whether you want to do this job at all!

It can make you worry about if you’re doing a good enough job even when you’re giving it your all. It can cause you to be annoyed and exasperated and just feel plain deflated, like someone took a pin to your balloon. This kind of team conflict is totally harmful: To you, to your team members, and to the productivity of your team as a whole. If we can avoid or end this conflict, we should.

Knowing the Difference Between Tension & Friction Will Save You a LOT of Pain

When we’ve got tension and positive conflict, or when we’re learning and thinking about issues from new angles and coming to optimal answers, that’s like yoga. When we’ve got palpable friction and a constant sense that we’re about to be in trouble, that’s more like getting a blister. There’s nothing worse than a blister’s constant pain. When we’re covered in blisters we’re paralyzed by that pain. We know that making a move – any move – will just make it hurt worse. That’s what happens when we get into situations on our team where nobody’s listening, nobody’s changing their initial opinion, and we’re all just stuck in a rut and spinning our wheels.

There are definitely good reasons to be uncomfortable and in conflict on your team. It means different perspectives are being heard and opinions are being reappraised until we get the best answer. But this other sort of conflict – where no one’s listening, no one’s changing or evolving, the team isn’t optimizing – that’s the kind where the only thing we’re successfully doing is collecting more blisters and resignation letters.

Are You In Healthy Tension or Unhealthy Friction?

Think about which kind of conflict your team has. It’s not necessarily a bad thing to be uncomfortable or have conflict, so long as it’s healthy and constructive tension. But if it’s the harmful sort of friction? Soon or later, that’ll burn everything up.


More on this

How to Tell if Your Work Conflict is Healthy

The Steps to Resolve a Conflict at Work

Productive Versus Unproductive Conflict Resolution

Next Video: Conflict Resolution in the Workplace: Interpersonal Conflict