Healthy conflict is healthy for your business

On the rocky road to success, conflict between employees is inevitable, especially in companies that are growing and expanding.

Your job as a leader is to take advantage of that conflict and channel it into creative and productive ends. Moreover, if you and your colleagues are not engaging in regular spirited, passionate, conflicted discussions, there could be danger ahead. You could be leading a “nice” company that is not as successful as it could have been.

It’s time to suck up your courage, take action, stir things up and become the conflict-inspiring leader you were meant to be.

Unhealthy or healthy conflict: Which is happening in your company?

First of all, get set on what healthy conflict is and isn’t. Healthy conflict is absent when people feel that their work territory is being invaded, and their authority is being undermined.

Unhealthy conflict has its roots in poor communication skills and low emotional intelligence. It usually involves bickering, fear, negativity, gossip, finger-pointing and hurt feelings. In environments where unhealthy conflict thrives, colleagues will be nice to each other in public, but will demean each other in private. Mistrust, resignation, resentment and malaise form over these organizations; hardly an environment that people love to work in or buy products and services from.

Organizations that encourage healthy conflict are just the opposite. There is a robust and lively culture where idea development and action are the main focus, not personality clashes. Employees at any level can talk straight with each other, debate their views, and resolve issues before they escalate into career-limiting and company-derailing problems. People are passionate, but not personal, about their points of view and leave meetings feeling heard and shaking hands with each other, not feeling neglected and frustrated and shaking their heads. Ultimately, unhealthy conflict can escalate to people “dancing in the parking lot.”

Establish healthy conflict boundary lines.

As a leader, you must establish healthy conflict ground rules for yourself and with your employees. What worked in kindergarten will work fine now too: Play nice. No hair-pulling, eye-gouging, kicking, biting or spitting. No name-calling or personal attacks. Get agreement that the team will engage in a healthy exchange of ideas to find solutions to important problems and capitalize on opportunities. Everyone is expected to listen and then share their ideas. Ideally, there should be a 50-50 ratio between listening and sharing. To help colleagues that may have a hard time speaking up, take a few minutes at the beginning of each meeting to have everyone write down their just-in-time ideas on paper. They can refer to their notes and be prepared to speak up. At the end of the spirited and lively discussion, everyone should take responsibility for the agreed-upon outcomes and the follow-up procedures. When problems arise, and they will, each person is expected to take their concerns directly to the person responsible and not gossip or complain to others. 

Try a little kindness.

Personally and professionally, when you’re in the middle of conflict, try a little kindness toward yourself and the other person. Get clear about your shared commitments and what you agree on. Put the discussion in the proper context by asking yourself, “What’s really going on here? Am I interested in being right or moving forward and getting the job done? Could I be holding a grudge or keeping score from last week’s meeting or project?”

Also, put the conflict in perspective and ask yourself, “Will this decision matter in one day, one week, one month or one year?” It’s rare that a single decision can’t be changed or altered if it proves to be unworkable.

Become an observer of the interactions in the room. You will have more power when you can step outside of yourself and notice what’s happening in the moment. It’s almost like being a fan in the stands versus being a player on the field. As an observer, you are able to slow down and gain the perspective of the entire game.

Resolve conflict by physically moving together as a group. Have everyone take a short break or relocate the meeting outside and take a walk together. It is remarkable how changing your scenery and moving to a new location will change the entire course of the discussion.

In order to become a powerful conflict-inspiring leader, get out of your comfort zone and try something new. If you’re usually passive, try on being more assertive. If you’re the aggressor, leading the conversation, let others step up and voice their concerns and opinions first. Notice your body language and the impact it’s having on others. Are you sending signals that you are confused, angry, defensive or bored? Get some feedback from a trusted adviser about how your body is talking without you saying a word.

Become aware of your dominant behavioral style. Learn how to relate and be more effective with other communication styles. Most successful leaders and organizations know that communication breakdowns can be avoided with ongoing education, coaching and mentoring. If you are frustrated by continually negative conflict sessions, engage a healthy conflict expert to help develop your team’s communication skills and learn how to engage in rigorous dialogue and debate.

Ask tough questions and challenge your employees to give honest answers. Move beyond the comfortable, predictable, business-as-usual operating procedures. By engaging in healthy conflict and taking action on your discoveries, each person in your organization will be reinvigorated and inspired to reach new levels of success!

• Kathleen Caldwell is president of Caldwell Consulting Group and the founder of the Global WHEE Institute (Wealthy, Healthy, Energetic Edge) of Woodstock. She works with leaders and teams to play their best game and produce record-breaking results. A “Trust Your Game” resource list is available at, or by phone at 815-206-4014.

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