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When Shouldn't You Shy Away from Conflict?

by Katie Moritz
September 8, 2017 | Work

Are you an avoider or a seeker? When it comes to workplace conflict, Amy Gallo, Harvard Business Review editor and author of "The HBR Guide to Dealing with Conflict at Work," breaks folks into those two categories: people who try their best to avoid all forms of conflict, and those who are eager to engage in disagreements.

Neither way of dealing with conflict is better than the other—they're just different. And both have their own pitfalls. Avoiders can end up feeling steamrolled by more assertive folks, and seekers can end up saying something they don't mean in the heat of the moment.

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But even with the possibility of pitfalls, workplace conflict experts don't think we should avoid disagreeing about things at work. Productive disagreements and discussions can make for better ideas and expand your understanding of your coworkers, making for a more trusting and cohesive team.

Good conflict vs. bad conflict

Conflict researchers have identified four common categories of workplace disagreements—one type is productive and healthy, but the other three are destructive and can hurt team dynamics.

Task conflict is the most productive type, workplace conflict expert and Stanford Business School professor Lindred Greer said in a video interview with the school. These are disagreements about the actual functions and goals of your team, which, when handled correctly, can challenge your team to develop better ideas.

The three unproductive types of conflict are:

- Process conflict, or arguments over details such as logistics and division of labor. When teammates argue about these little things, there's usually a deeper team dysfunction at hand that isn't being properly addressed, Greer said. Research has shown that this is—a little surprisingly—the most destructive form of workplace conflict because of the underlying issues it hints at.

- Relationship conflict, or clashes over personal things like mismatched personality traits and political differences. These arguments have nothing to do with team performance and can get in the way of moving forward toward a common goal. The personal nature of these disagreements can cause them to get emotional.

- Status conflict, or discord related to folks jockeying for power within an organization or their smaller team. These kind of conflicts are especially common once you get into the higher levels of an organization, and are difficult to suss out and defuse, Greer said. They happen when folks are feeling territorial about their status and want to maintain or improve their role.

When a conflict happens, what should you do?

But, if you're in a work meeting and a disagreement happens (whether you're one of the participants or not), how do you know if it's good conflict or bad conflict?

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If the people who are disagreeing are "discussing an issue that's very related to the task and the members seem to be engaging in this debate because they want to make the team better, as a manager this is a conflict you should allow to go on, let it play out and see where they come to in this conflict," Greer said.

If "the conflict is personal or emotional or it's about issues that are not so important, such as about the process, this is a conflict that (the person in charge) should cut off and try to resolve offline, talk to the members individually and try to get them on the same page again," she said.

She broke the process down into three easy steps. When you're involved in a conflict or watching one happen, determine:

1. What are folks disagreeing about?

What are the two (or more) sides to the argument?

2. Why are they disagreeing?

Is the argument over something that's pivotal to the team's function, or is it a proxy for bad team vibes?

3. What are their emotions?

If one, both or all people in the discussion are getting emotional and the situation is escalating, the conversation should be cut off and given some room to breathe before figuring out another way to address the issue at hand.

Katie Moritz
Katie Moritz was Rewire's senior editor from 2016-2020. She is a Pisces who enjoys thrift stores and pho. Follow her on Twitter @katecmoritz.
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