When it comes to romantic partnerships, most of us know that conflict is inevitable. In fact, some discord can actually be healthy and can help the relationship grow.
Turns out, the same logic applies at work. At some point, colleagues are bound to clash — but depending on how the conflict is expressed, it can either be beneficial or destructive.
That’s according to new research published in the Academy of Management Review. It suggests that coworkers can tweak their argument style to make sure their disagreements strengthen, rather than damage, their professional relationships.
The key is to communicate your opposition clearly, but to avoid getting angry or launching personal attacks. The ideal situation is a debate, as opposed to sneaky politicking or an out-and-out fight.
In fact, says Laurie Weingart, Ph.D., a professor of organizational behaviour and theory at Carnegie Mellon’s Tepper School of Business who co-authored the paper, when coworkers engage in debate and deliberation, the conflict can have an “energizing, positive outcome.” Ultimately, coworkers can learn from the process and walk away more satisfied with each other and with their jobs.
For example, imagine two coworkers get into an argument while collaborating on a presentation. One coworker contends they should lead a discussion among their team; the other thinks they should simply present a series of Powerpoint slides.
In the best-case scenario, each coworker would calmly express his or her ideas and disagreements.
- A discussion would give people a chance to ask questions.
- A Powerpoint would be more efficient.
Then, they would give the other a chance to respond. Each one would listen to what the other is saying and carefully consider the implications.
“We can disagree without me feeling personally attacked,” Weingart says.
Over the next few weeks, it’s likely that the coworkers would come to understand each other’s positions and resolve the conflict in some capacity.
Many employees already practice this kind of healthy debating, as opposed to emotional fighting. “At some organisations,” Weingart says, “you walk in and it looks like people are arguing all the time. And they feel great.”
At other organisations, however, “conflict is rarely mentioned. But they may not be getting along, really.” That’s because employees may demonstrate other, covert ways of communicating conflict, like teasing or backstabbing.
At still other organisations, employees may clearly engage in highly emotional fights (shouting and staging personal attacks) that leave people dissatisfied with their coworkers and their jobs.
While you may not be able to dictate company culture, you can certainly try to manage your own approach to conflict. That requires overcoming the natural tendency to be “reactive” instead of “proactive,” Weingart says. “We’re emotional beings. When other people emote, we reciprocate.”
Still, she says, you can actively monitor your reaction to others when you start getting into more intense interactions. So, for example, instead of automatically shouting back when someone yells at you for having terrible ideas, practice thinking carefully about what you’re going to say. How can you communicate your displeasure clearly without getting angry or upset?
Likewise, when you find out someone’s spreading rumours that could cost you a promotion, think about confronting that person calmly instead of gossiping about him in turn.
Ultimately, engaging in healthy forms of conflict expression will leave you happier and more productive at work — and less stressed overall.
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