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3 ways to turn workplace conflict into an opportunity

Conflict can be productive for an organization. It just needs to be managed correctly.

3 ways to turn workplace conflict into an opportunity
[Photo: jean wimmerlin/Unsplash]

Conflict is an inevitable part of life and long-term relationships—whether that’s friendship, marriage, or a business partnership. When you bring together a bunch of strangers from different backgrounds, cultures, and value systems, you’re bound to get conflict. This is especially likely to happen when you ask them to cooperate and collaborate toward shared goals.

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But conflict isn’t always a bad thing. In fact, conflict can be one of the primary forces for positive change. Many of the world’s most productive and inspired changes came as a result of significant conflict, and the same is true for companies and their products.

The thing is, organizations need to know how to manage and position it correctly. A poorly managed conflict can lead to disaster, but a properly managed conflict can result in innovation and productivity. If your company is experiencing problems, whether between particular coworkers or among entire teams, there are ways to turn the seemingly negative issues into positive opportunities. Here are three ideas.

1. Tackle the problem as a team

When individuals are in conflict, each tends to view the other as the source of the problem. If this is the case, then the only logical path toward alleviating the conflict is for the source to change.

As a manager, if you can help those individuals reframe where the problem is, it can make all the difference. You take the label of “problem” away from any person and place it, instead, on the issue itself. In other words, the problem isn’t the other person or the other team. The problem is the problem, and the other person becomes a potential ally and collaborator in solving the problem.

When you reframe the problem this way, it stops being a win-or-lose situation and becomes a shared battle. That means it’s no longer one against the other. This ignites a spirit of collaboration in tackling the issue. It brings workers who were seemingly at odds together onto the same team. Now, no one involved is bad or wrong. No one needs to change or get fixed. Instead, the thing that needs fixing is the “third party” problem itself, and the only way to fix it is by teaming up together to come up with creative solutions.

It’s important to note that this technique only applies when coworkers or teams aren’t seeing eye-to-eye or are having different perspectives leading to conflict. It does not apply when one individual is actually the problem, such as in the case of blatant harassment or discrimination.

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2. Learn about your company

Conflict can and should be an immense learning opportunity. In dealing with this issue, ask yourself: What did I learn? What sort of values, needs, and goals do your employees have that you were previously unaware of? Which of these do they share and which are uniquely individual?

As you navigate, manage, and hopefully resolve the current conflict, write down everything you can about the nuances of the situation. Aim to walk away with at least three major lessons about your company and your employees. Additionally, as a result of those lessons, try to construct at least one new system or policy alteration you’ll work on implementing to change company culture for the better. Every conflict contains invaluable lessons, and every experience provides the opportunity for change in a positive direction. Don’t let this conflict go to waste.

3. Widen the circle of change

If some individuals at the company are experiencing conflict, chances are, others feel the same way.

Sure, they might not be experiencing those exact situations, but the problem probably exists in other forms. After learning what you can from this particular conflict, assess whether the same lessons or changes may have a positive effect on the rest of the team or company. Use this challenge as an impetus for greater focus on culture. Run a survey or an organizational assessment to determine if and what other problems people are facing.

You can also use this conflict as a tipping point for more robust, ongoing initiatives toward discovery efforts within your organization. Turn this current conflict into a win by learning what other challenges people are facing at your company. The more clarity you have on the potential for conflict at your company, the more clarity you will have on the potential for positive change.

Don’t be afraid of conflict. It is natural, and often vital. Instead, recognize that there is a lot that workplace disputes or challenges can teach you. Use this opportunity to learn about your organization, the people who make it run, and their individual and shared values and goals. Think about how you, as a manager, can use that information to enhance your company culture. When you do that, you’ll begin to see many benefits, from higher employee retention to greater overall workplace satisfaction.

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Jeremy Pollack is the founder of Pollack Peacebuilding and an anthropologist and conflict-resolution consultant in Silicon Valley. 

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