Business Advice

The surprising ways conflict is actually good for business

- July 17, 2023 3 MIN READ


Several factors contribute to teams shining, sinking or spinning, and conflict is often seen to play a negative role. However, the reality is that conflict is inevitable. When used correctly, conflict can create an exciting environment. When used poorly, it can be expensive, explains Adrian Baillargeon, team performance expert and author of Teams that Swear.

In 2008, CPP Global conducted a worldwide survey on workplace conflict spanning nine countries and 5,000 employees. They found that in the US, employees spend nearly three hours a week dealing with unproductive conflict, equating to approximately $359 billion in paid hours.

While that study was almost 15 years ago, we still need to progress in eliminating counterproductive clashes in our workplaces and businesses.

Why conflict can be good

Yet conflict isn’t always a bad thing. Conflict can drive a strong ROI when the teams become more comfortable with differing views. Look at the approach of the Wright Brothers. At times, midway through a heated debate, they would switch sides and start to argue the other’s point of view. By the end of the argument, Orville would argue for Wilbur’s point and vice versa. Or they would throw out both ideas and identify a better third option.

Whether the brothers knew it or not, they used the ‘Dissoi Logoi’ approach. In Greek, the words mean ‘double arguments’ and represent opposing arguments in the hopes of a better outcome.

When using this type of conflict management technique, Orville and Wilbur chose to enter into theInner Sanctum of Conflict’. These behaviours include focusing on a solution, listening, talking, questioning, and aiming to persuade or be persuaded. The very best leaders accept and advocate for this approach.

‘Outer Sanctum of Conflict’ behaviours include focusing on one’s solution, bullying and blocking ideas, and aiming to manipulate and intimidate. These approaches lead to avoidance or arguments. And at times, when conflict can’t be sorted out, an arbitrator is required.

Think of going to your boss to sort things out. Or mum and dad. This outcome is not a great look for anyone.

LISTEN: Adrian Baillargeon on unlocking your team’s potential


Intellectual humility: The key to capitalising conflict

Mark Leary, a social and personality psychologist at Duke University, studies what he calls ‘intellectual humility’ – recognising what you believe might be wrong. Individuals who demonstrate higher scores on intellectual humility tests are proven to be more open to hearing opposing views, regularly seek out information that conflicts with their ideas, pay more attention to evidence and have a stronger self-awareness when they get something wrong.

Here are four tips for strengthening your team’s intellectual humility and staying in the Inner Sanctum of Conflict:

1. Challenge on purpose

Use the ‘Dissoi Logoi’ approach as the Wright Brothers did. Ensure people know the activity aims to be purposefully critical of the idea, not the person.

2. Conceal the who

This is a great exercise when working on a problem with a group. Ask them to submit their views on paper, with no name on it. This will remove some personal biases that may exist and make those uncomfortable with challenging others to expose their great thinking.

3. Champion it

I’ve heard of senior staff from advertising agencies inviting junior team members into a boardroom, presenting to them and asking the junior staff to identify gaps and assumptions. Finding faults with your superiors’ work sounds intimidating. By having leaders champion conflict and challenge, everyone feels more comfortable sharing their opinions.

4. Curse in front of each other, not behind each other

Arianna Huffington suggests that when there is a strong level of trust between two people, she recommends they say things as they are, not hold back, and not wait to find the exact right words.

She said, “You can say it while you are angry. You don’t have to wait to calm down. Whatever. But if you’re incapable of doing that or only capable of passive-aggressive behaviour, which is always being nice to your managers or colleagues while badmouthing them behind their backs, consider this your last warning.”

Constructive conflict produces powerful outcomes. Differing views can either work for or against your team. By being intentional and helping your team become more comfortable with it, you can improve your team dynamics and performance and get your team to swear more by each other and less about each other.

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