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Can Workplace Conflict be Healthy?

You most likely try to avoid conflict at work. All of us do. At even a hint of conflict, we turn and run the other way. Disagreements can produce a similar reaction—we know that opposing others can have a slew of negative consequences. For HR professionals and managers, who often spend hours each week resolving conflict, avoiding conflict altogether most likely sounds like a great idea.


However, it’s not always best to turn a blind eye to potential conflicts. Eliminating tension in the workplace isn’t feasible, no matter how small or large your team is. That’s why it’s time to consider a new approach: redirecting petty disagreements toward a positive pursuit.


Negative conflict, which is characterized by struggling against others, drains energy and costs companies. A CCP Global Human Capital report estimated that the annual cost of workplace conflict in the U.S. is roughly $359 billion in lost time and productivity.


That’s why many psychologists are advocating for taking the energy conflict causes and redirecting it. When approached in a positive way, conflict can spark innovation, trust, and engagement among employees. This was backed up by research from Next Element, a workplace consultancy. The path to positive conflict is what Nate Regier, CEO of Next Element, calls “compassionate accountability.” This involves struggling with others though the conflict to reach an acceptable solution.


In the company’s latest online survey, they found that 64 percent of employees would rather compromise than make an argument for their preferred outcome in order to avoid onflict. This can be troubling for employers, because this means that many employees are not voicing their opinions and are instead compromising. The best ideas may not be coming out.


The survey found that conflict:

  • doesn’t need to be destructive,
  • should be leveraged rather than managed, and
  • can be handled with compassion.


How to Approach Conflict Compassionately
There are three key compassion skills that can be used to negotiate difficult conversations.

  • Be more open. Embrace empathy in order to understand others’ motives, emotions, and responses.
  • Be resourceful. Avoid sharing your ideas first. Ask others for their thoughts first, instead.
  • Be persistent. Be clear about your expectations and hold others and yourself accountable. Acknowledge when you make mistakes.

For HR managers, it’s also important to know that conflict will always be emotional. For more helpful articles on navigating workplace issues, sign up for our monthly newsletter.

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