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The Upside of Conflict in the Workplace

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The Upside of Conflict in the Workplace


Conflict often gets a bad rap, but it has an upside. These practical tools can help you turn workplace conflict into a competitive advantage.

7 min read

When you hear the word conflict, what thoughts spring to mind? If you’re like most people, your answer is likely to be negative. Because we perceive conflict to be a bad thing, many of us fear or avoid it, or think something is terribly wrong when it appears. In this article we will dispel three common myths about conflict and offer two practical tools to turn conflict into an ally.

Myth #1: Conflict is avoidable

“Peace is not the absence of conflict, but the ability to cope with it” – Dorothy Thomas

This myth stems from the belief that there are groups of people for whom conflict doesn’t exist. It sounds plausible because we all know people who seem to have harmonious relationships with colleagues, their boss and employees. However, if we dig a litter deeper, for conflict not to exist would require that these people agree on everything, all the time. It now becomes clear that this isn’t possible. Conflict is inevitable; we can’t avoid it, no matter how hard we try.

Amy Gallo, author of the Harvard Business Review Guide to Dealing with Conflict, explains we are so uncomfortable with disagreement that we seek out people who see the world the same way (Gallo, 2019). This creates the illusion that conflict is avoidable.

Tool #1: Normalize conflict

The way to address this myth is to normalize conflict (Davey, 2019). Many of us stay silent because we believe disagreeing is mean or unkind (Gallo, 2019). Normalizing conflict provides permission to speak up at work. How exactly can you do this? Gallo uses the mantra “Sometimes people are going to disagree with me. And that’s okay.”

Myth #2: Conflict means the relationship/team is not meant to be

Relationship experts, management consultants, mediators and conflict researchers all agree that conflict is a normal part of any healthy relationship (Brett & Goldberg, 2017; Davey, 2019; Shonk, 2021; The Gottman Institute, n.d.). “Happily ever after,” whether in personal or professional relationships, only exists in fairytales. Conflict signals there is work to be done, not that the relationship is doomed.

It also turns out that we attribute the cause of many conflicts to simply not getting along, labelling the conflict a ‘relationship issue’. However, Gallo (2017) says we need to get better at identifying the source. She categorizes conflicts into four types:

  1. Relationship/personal: Gallo says, despite what we think, most work-related conflicts begin with one of the other three conflict types. Of course, if the conflict is not dealt with constructively, it can evolve into a relationship conflict. We can determine if things have turned personal if there is disrespect;
  2. Task: disagreement over the objective e.g., improving customer service vs increasing revenue. Gallo refers to this as the ‘what’ of the conflict;
  3. Process: agreement regarding the goal, but disagreement about how to achieve it. This is the ‘how’ of the conflict;
  4. Status: disagreement over who has the power or authority to make the decision. This is the ‘who’ of the conflict. Gallo has found that status conflicts are more common in cross-functional teams.

Tool #2: Get clear about the source of the conflict

Don’t assume that your conflict is personal. Physician and relationship researcher Anthony Suchman recommends looking out for thoughts such as “If you like my idea, you like me”, and “If you don’t like my idea, you don’t like me” (Friedman, 2016).

Determine whether the issue is really a task, process or status conflict by trying to identify your counterpart’s objective, opinion on the best process and belief about who’s in charge. Then get clear about your own objective and perspectives on process and status. Comparing you and your partner’s ideas will highlight any sources of disagreement.

Myth #3: Conflict is bad

There is no question that when conflict is mismanaged it can cause tremendous harm to individuals, teams and organizations. This is referred to as destructive conflict and is what most of us think conflict is.

We all learn ‘how to do conflict’. If your ideas about conflict stem from painful childhood memories or previous unhealthy relationships, you may expect all disagreements to end badly (Segal et al., 2020). If your early life experiences included feeling powerless, you may find conflict traumatizing and benefit from professional support.

The good news is that conflict doesn’t have to be destructive; it can also be constructive or productive (Ashkenas & Bodell, 2013; Burkus, 2013). It all boils down to how it’s handled. We can unlearn our ideas about conflict and change how we respond.

There have been many documented benefits of constructive conflict in the workplace including:

  • better work outcomes (creative friction leads to innovation)
  • opportunities to learn and grow
  • improved relationships (resolving conflict together builds trust and closeness)
  • higher job satisfaction, and
  • a more inclusive work environment (Gallo, 2018).

In a follow-up article, we will dive into ways to handle conflict constructively.

Key takeaways

  • Conflict is a normal part of healthy relationships because people don’t always agree.
  • We often incorrectly assume conflict at work is personal when it may be task-, process- or status-related.
  • Constructive conflict in the workplace is beneficial.
  • Rather than attempting to eliminate conflict, we should focus on learning ways to transform destructive conflict in to constructive conflict.

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