Can conflict ever be a good thing?

Two of your employees seem to be in conflict. They bicker, critique or criticize each other. Or, when you interact with your employees, the tension is high.

Is this good or bad? The best answer is: It depends.

The word "conflict," usually conjures up negative associations, such as arguments, hatred, anger, hurt feelings, distrust and more. But what is conflict and how does it impact worker performance?

Stephen Robbins, author of Organizational Behavior, defines conflict as, "A process that begins when one party perceives that another party has negatively affected or is about to negatively affect something the first party cares about."

I define conflict simply as tension. Shakespeare once wrote that, "Nothing is good or bad, but thinking makes it so." Applied to tension, this means that conflict in itself is neither good nor bad. But when we add our own experiences to conflict or tension, we give it a positive or negative value. People who are afraid of conflict likely have had a negative experience with it; they may have been put down by someone, yelled at, insulted, condescended to or embarrassed.

People often respond to conflict in at least three ways:

  • They shy away from situations that even hint of conflict. They are reluctant to get involved in conversations that may be challenging, heated or potentially negative.
  • They try to overcome their fear or reluctance by overcompensating. They react in a way that is often too loud, offensive or demeaning.
  • They realize that not all conflict situations are negative, and they enter into the communication with an open mind, eager for an interaction.

How employees deal with conflict is usually a direct reflection of the tone or atmosphere you set for your company. If you shy away from conflict, so will your employees. If you confront others in a negative manner, so will they. If you embrace conflict as a potentially positive engagement between individuals or groups, they will, too.

So what are the advantages and disadvantages of conflict or tension? Robbins says to value the conflict itself and the conflict's potential for productivity as low, medium or high. Here's a look at a few possible scenarios and how you can make the most of the conflict or lack thereof.

Low Conflict/Low Potential: When you don't seem concerned about what your employees do, and the interaction and conflict between you and the employees is minimal or neutral, the overall group cohesion and productivity are low. This usually occurs when employees don't care about their job or the outcome of their efforts. This could be a reaction to what they perceive as your lack of interest or concern or simply their own view of their job.

This situation most often occurs in large, impersonal organizations or in bureaucracies. As the boss, you need to evaluate the quality and type of interactions existing in your company. You need to turn an apathetic, negative atmosphere into a positive, thriving one; you can do this by becoming involved in the daily activities of some of your workers or supervisors to show them a more positive and productive way to interact.

High Conflict/Low Potential: Here's another situation with a similarly unfortunate outcome. When the level of conflict is high--chaos, strained or uncertain lines of authority, or unclear job processes--and the conflict is negative, employee output and cohesion are also low. Here, even though employees may care about their job, the large amount of conflict clouds their ability to get the job done effectively. This is clearly a time for you to clarify goals, tasks and processes with an emphasis on reducing negative interactions.

Medium Conflict/High Potential: The third scenario involves a medium amount of conflict. You and your employees can challenge each other, refute thoughts, offer innovative alternatives and problem solve. This is all done without offending one another. The result of this moderate level of conflict is high cohesion and high output. Employees believe in what they are accomplishing, and they feel committed to the boss, the project and the outcome. This is the optimal combination of tension and productivity.

The message here is that conflict is natural. It occurs in every organization. However, the process of engaging in conflict doesn't have to be negative and counterproductive. In fact, it can be positive. It all depends on how you view the tension that gets created and what you do with it. Now go have a productive conflict.