Why We Shouldn’t Just Get Along

By Melanie Lockwood Herman

During an interview for a recent Risk Assessment, a staff member at a client nonprofit asked, “Why can’t we just get along?” She continued by describing the actions of senior leaders in her organization, whose behavior toward one another negatively affected employees at all levels of the organization. Instead of inspiring kindness, compassion and the willingness to help and support one another, the leadership team’s behavior inspired mistrust.

To begin mending broken fences in an organization or heal a toxic culture, it’s important to reflect on the reasons for conflict as well as its potential role in making an agency stronger and more effective.

The “Why” Behind Workplace Conflict

In “How to Resolve Workplace Conflicts,” an article featured in an issue of HR Magazine, the author describes four common reasons that give rise to troubling workplace disputes:

  1. Conflicting priorities
  2. Conflicting perspectives
  3. Conflicting assumptions
  4. Conflicting tolerances

The article’s author, Tamara Lytle, explains that conflicting priorities are at the heart of conflict when staff battle over resources, incompatible goals, and change. Conflicting perspectives may be the confounding culprit when different backgrounds, worldviews, wants and needs clash at work. Conflicting assumptions fuel conflict when team members misinterpret one another’s intentions. And conflict tolerances arise when staff members bring different levels of comfort with conflict to the workplace.

When and Why Conflict is a Force for Good

During her studies in Conflict Resolution at George Mason University, former NRMC intern Emily Wilson has learned that conflict is not always a bad thing. According to Emily, “Constructive conflict can improve the quality of decisions made under pressure and conflict also helps ensure that a variety of perspectives are considered when an important choice must be made.” Lytle agrees, writing that, “…conflict is actually normal and healthy. In fact, many believe that it’s a vital ingredient to organizational success.”

When is conflict a good thing? Conflict can be a powerful force for good when your employees recognize that firm, but polite disagreement is essential to exploring the toughest challenges and most exciting opportunities facing the organization. Conflict is also a tool for progress when disagreements are addressed in person, and without delay. Running down a co-worker or denigrating their ideas outside of their presence is not acceptable. Sending inflammatory emails to prove you’re “right” and a colleague is “wrong,” is simply and always wrong. Explaining your different perspective or views to a colleague during a meeting where both of you are present is healthy and productive.

At the Center, I’ve come to relish meetings where contrary views come to the surface. And I’m proud of how members of our team respectfully share their conflicting perspectives and ideas. In fact, when I notice that our team seems to be too comfortably wed to a single approach to a challenge, I worry that anchoring bias has taken hold! The lack of disagreement can send a smart group of people down a dangerous, or suboptimal path. When our team senses that we have too quickly settled on the first idea presented, we try to take a few minutes to come up with the polar opposite solution to the one we initially thought made the most sense. After identifying the antithesis of our first solution, we then try to identify “synthesis,” or blended ideas.

Practical Conflict-Resolutions Tips and Strategies

Emily Wilson suggests the following approaches to transform destructive workplace conflict into a powerful and productive force for good.

  • Take a look in the mirror – Start managing unproductive conflict by taking a simple quiz to diagnose your conflict management style. Keep in mind that your style may change depending on the situation. Think about your relationship with a specific work team as you complete the quiz. Consider sharing the results with your team, and encouraging others to take the quiz.
  • Pay close attention to non-verbal clues – When you notice negative, nonverbal clues suggesting disagreement or frustration–such as crossed-arms, sitting back away from the group, or lack of eye contact–resolve to determine the meaning behind the negativity. Effective board and committee chairs do this by pausing to ask the person with negative energy for their perspectives on the topic at hand. For example, “Bob, you’ve had a lot of experience in the area we’re talking about. What solutions haven’t we considered?”
  • Engage in collaborative and reflective listening – When you’re having a hard time understanding where on earth (or elsewhere!) a colleague is coming from, try “wearing” your co-worker’s perspectives, by repeating what you believe to be their position. For example, “I understand that you want us to discontinue offering that program because it generates more negative feedback than anything else we’re doing. Does that explain your position?” To learn more about reflective listening click here.
  • Embrace, don’t bury conflict – The most important step to creating a collaborative and harmonious workplace is to insist that conflict be addressed directly and without delay. If you catch a glimpse of yourself engaging in conflict-avoiding or passive-aggressive behavior, resolve to meet face-to-face with the key players, today. When you observe conflict brewing in the work teams you supervise, insist that everyone get together to discuss and thoughtfully reflect on the creative spectrum of views and solutions.

Few leaders look forward to conflict in the workplace. Yet wishing that your team will “get along” or that conflict will dissipate without intervention, are equally unproductive. A healthier perspective is to recognize that conflict and creativity go hand in glove. By encouraging the members of your team to bring conflicts to the table, and to practice disagreeing without being disagreeable, you will begin to make conflict a source for mission-advancing good.

Melanie Herman is Executive Director of the Nonprofit Risk Management Center. She welcomes your questions and feedback at Melanie@nonprofitrisk.org or 703.777.3504.