Why Good Leaders Love Office Conflict

UPDATED: March 17, 2016
PUBLISHED: February 4, 2015

Max Volsky and Mike Dolan had been close friends for 30 years, ever since they played hockey for Suffern High School in Rockland County, N.Y. Two years ago they decided to start igobono, a social marketplace where members swap and donate goods and services using the virtual currency bonos. “We were having heated arguments about even the smallest things, like what color the join-up button should be,” Volsky says. “It became clear that if we wanted igobono to succeed and we wanted to preserve our friendship, we needed to find a way to manage conflict.”

John DeHart and Ken Sim were introduced by a mutual mentor in 2001. Both had recently moved to Vancouver, British Columbia, to raise their families and were eager to start a business. As co-CEOs they launched Nurse Next Door, a home health-care service that by 2010 had 37 franchises (and now more than 90). But DeHart and Sim clashed constantly. “If I said the sky was pink,” DeHart says, “Ken would say it was gray.” Finances were an especially contentious issue. Several years ago, DeHart was livid when Sim spent $15,000 on tickets to the Stanley Cup hockey finals for their 15 employees. “Value our people was one of our core values,” DeHart says, “but I would have put that money into a bonus pool and tied it to business targets.”


Conflict. It’s an inevitable—and crucial—part of every business. Handled well, the clash of ideas, claims, interests and preferences can be a positive force, exposing the weaknesses of positions and leading to creativity, innovative problem-solving and growth. “Instead of me against you, it becomes us against a problem,” says Robert Ferguson, co-author with Peter Coleman of the new book Making Conflict Work: Harnessing the Power of Disagreement.

Small businesses are especially well positioned to benefit from collaborative conflict, says management consultant Patrick Lencioni, whose latest best-selling book is The Advantage: Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything Else In Business. “Because of the close relationships in a small business, you can cycle through a problem quickly,” he says. “You get everyone in a room and say, ‘Here’s the challenge. How are we going to solve it?’ ”

When Volsky and Dolan clashed over whether to outsource the development of their website (Dolan’s preference) or hire someone internally (Volsky’s pick), they already knew how to resolve the squabble: They followed the methods contained in a manifesto for defusing disagreements that Volsky had developed earlier. (The 12-point contract, which they both signed, includes items such as: “Remember we have different skill sets, so never debate about who works harder,” “Deal with a serious dispute immediately, no exceptions,” and “Use A/B testing when possible to decide on [website] features and solicit feedback from users.”) The document led them to a better option for developing their site: Dolan moved to Colima, Mexico, for eight months and worked on igobono.com with a firm there. “That strategy probably saved us close to $1 million,” Volsky says. “With the manifesto, we are able to negotiate decisions that are a lot better than what either one of us comes up with on our own.”

But the intimacy of a small company can also bring out the corrosive side of conflict if passionate disagreements dissolve into personal attacks. Instead of being open to fresh perspectives, people dig in their heels and become rigid about defending their points of view. The consequences are pernicious, says Michael A. Roberto, a professor of management at Bryant University in Smithfield, R.I., and author of Why Great Leaders Don’t Take Yes for an Answer: Managing for Conflict and Consensus. Standoffs can lead to delays in decision-making, diminished commitments to the choices that are made, and strained working relationships.

Take the dual—and dueling—CEOs at Nurse Next Door. “Our arguments were creating a lot of pain and stress for our employees,” DeHart says. “Ken and I had different strategies. He told the team one thing; I told them another. That created a lot of confusion. Because we couldn’t agree on big decisions, we weren’t making any decisions. That was slowing down our growth, and we were losing talented people.” (Ultimately DeHart became sole CEO in 2012, and a president was hired to run the company in 2014.)

Unresolved or poorly managed conflict is costly. According to a 2008 global study on workplace conflict commissioned by CPP, publishers of the Myers-Briggs personality test, U.S. employees spend 2.8 hours every week dealing with conflict. Based on an average U.S. hourly wage of $17.95, that adds up to about $360 billion in paid hours. The good news: With a little practice, you can cultivate healthy conflict and put it to use in helping your business thrive.

Moving Beyond Agreement

Imagine a conference room where a meeting is taking place to review a startup’s strategy in rolling out its first products. The company’s founder describes the marketing plans and asks whether anyone disagrees with the approach. The room is silent. “Good,” she says. “Since we’re all in agreement, let’s get moving.”

Leaders who take silence for consent do so at their peril. If a meeting seems more like a round of golf than a fast-and-physical ice hockey game, that’s a warning that there’s a lack of candor in your organization, Roberto says. “When you get a lot of people nodding in agreement when you put out ideas, it doesn’t mean people think your idea is brilliant,” he adds. “It’s more likely they have concerns that they’re afraid to express.”

There are important reasons you should care about this. For one thing, you’re not getting the benefit of ideas becoming better as they’re thrashed about. For another, you don’t have the kind of commitment that comes from a full and open debate. “People may implement the plan, but they haven’t bought into it,” Roberto says, “and that’s where you get a lot of Monday-morning quarterbacking when things don’t work out.”

Smart leaders actively seek dissent. “Business owners will often say they have an open-door policy,” Roberto says, “and I tell them, ‘That’s a crock.’ If you’re waiting for dissent to walk through the door, it’s not going to happen.”

The following five tactics will encourage conflict to come inside and pull up a chair:

1. Don’t simply let democracy rule. If there are seven people in a room and six agree with a strategy, coax out the divergent view. Ferguson suggests saying something like, “I want to hear what Dave has to say. Let’s spend some more time on this.” Chances are Dave will share something that’ll make your decision a stronger one.

2. Be quiet for the first 10 minutes of a meeting. In a small organization, people are often quick to line up behind the founder’s or CEO’s proposals. To avoid that kind of bias, Ferguson and Coleman suggest offering your ideas last in a meeting or, if there’s a lively exchange of ideas, not at all.

3. Go “mining for conflict.” When a difficult decision needs to be made, ask all members of the team to give their opinions, Lencioni says, and explore the disagreements thoroughly. If someone engaged with the debate is becoming uncomfortable with the level of discord, interrupt the discussion and remind everyone that this is a necessary part of the process. “As simple and paternal as this may sound,” Lencioni says, “it is a remarkably effective tool for draining tension from a provocative but difficult interchange and giving the participants the confidence to continue.” Ferguson agrees and adds, “A good leader has to have the guts to allow the tension in a room to continue.”

4. Invite reverse debate. Members of a team sometimes become so entrenched in their positions that winning becomes more important than trying to understand the merits of another point of view. The exchange of ideas stalls while rancor rises. One tactic for breaking a logjam is to have the people on Team A develop a plan based on the strategy suggested by Team B, while Team B works on a plan to execute Team A’s proposal. “This forces people to walk in the other side’s shoes and gain an appreciation for the rationale behind the opposing approach,” Roberto says. “The process can help generate novel ideas instead of everyone just trying to poke holes in each other’s positions.”

5. Don’t confuse unanimity with consensus. Teams can sometimes be paralyzed by a need for complete agreement. It’s more productive to think of consensus as a high level of commitment and clarity, Roberto says. This means that everyone weighs in on his or her point of view, there’s healthy argument, and then the leader, taking in the various points of view, makes a decision. Once people know they’ve been heard, they’re more likely to buy into a decision that might not be their first choice. 

Leaving a room without everyone in agreement can be uncomfortable. When Todd Horton founded KangoGift, a Cambridge, Mass.-based company that creates employee recognition programs, in 2008, “I wanted to get full agreement on every decision…. It led to frustration, stalled decision-making and a lack of focus.” Now Horton acts with a leadership mindset: “I realize that while everyone has a stake in decision-making, I was burdening people on my team by striving for unanimous agreement. Ultimately I need to find the answers that are in the best interest of the company, even if some people see things differently.”

Strengthening Your Conflict Intelligence

Harnessing healthy conflict isn’t painless. It requires taking steps that you might find uncomfortable and at times making your team uneasy as you allow a thorough but civil back-and-forth. That’s because conflict isn’t a matter of objectively discerning the smartest fix for a problem; it’s driven by messy things like emotion and ego. What Ferguson and Coleman call “conflict intelligence” requires keen social smarts. Here are some of the elements.

• Build trust. Great teams sometimes argue passionately, Lencioni says, and a solid foundation of trust keeps those debates focused on the pursuit of excellence without dissolving into personal attacks. Nothing inspires trust—in business, marriage or friendship—like vulnerability. “The best leaders admit when they make a mistake, and they acknowledge their limitations by saying things like, ‘Hey, I screwed up’ or ‘This isn’t my strong suit. I need help,’ ” Lencioni says. “When leaders risk losing face in front of the team, they send the clear message to their teams that they can risk admitting their shortcomings and being wrong, too.”

• Establish a goodwill bank account. Conflicts take place within the context of relationships. When people feel warmly toward each other, they can weather the tension of disagreement without permanently hurting their relationship. If they view each other with suspicion, however, even minor skirmishes can escalate into all-out wars.

Invest in creating positive connections so you’ll have a powerful buffer against the negative emotions that arise during clashes, Ferguson and Coleman say. For instance, if people have favorable interactions on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday but collide on Friday, their earlier deposits in the plus side of the emotional ledger will help them get through the stress without lasting damage. Those companywide social experiences—an annual picnic, birthday celebrations, a softball team, even allowing a meeting to run a little long for personal catch-ups—can forge tighter bonds among employees and an increased sense of “we-ness.”

• Be adaptable. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to conflict. Coleman and Ferguson offer seven tactics for dealing with conflict situations that range from a cooperative approach to a competitive one. “Pragmatic benevolence” is the approach that’s most useful for owners of small businesses, Ferguson says. It involves listening to the opinions of your team without judgment, practicing and rewarding candor, and engaging in collaborative problem-solving.

Other methods are better suited for different types of conflicts. For instance, when you’re dealing with a difficult employee, you may need to take a tactic of dominance, clarifying your authority and responding forcefully to challenges. If you’re in a critical phase of growth for your company and need to focus all your energies on sales, you might want to try a strategy of “selective autonomy,” distancing yourself from day-to-day conflicts and installing a manager who will serve as a gatekeeper who handles most of your team’s concerns.

• Repair post-conflict bruises. The residual hurt feelings and anger that can set in after a heated dispute will have a shorter life if the leader initiates what Coleman and Ferguson call a “repair conversation.” These can take place with the whole team, one on one with a partner, or even with a client after a taxing disagreement. “Let’s talk about what happened,” is a good one to begin to take partial responsibility, review goals and values, and discuss how to prevent similar clashes. Aim to make these conversations “both analytical and heartfelt,” Coleman and Ferguson say.

• Court outside views. Even the people who are savviest about conflict resolution need some new perspective from time to time—from friends, former colleagues, mentors, even one-time competitors.

Take the guys who wrote the book on healthy conflict: Peter Coleman and Robert Ferguson. “Peter and I had quite a bit of conflict,” Ferguson says. They brought different strengths to the project. Coleman teaches at Columbia and directs the university’s Morton Deutsch International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution. Ferguson works with organizations and businesses “in the trenches” every day. “Peter would want to include more statistics and charts, more theory, more academic materials,” Ferguson says. “I pushed back and said, ‘Our readers want practical advice.’ Sometimes our conversations were tense.” Most of the time, the co-authors worked out the disagreements on their own. But on a few occasions, they turned to their editor to settle the debate.

“We knew that if we just argued or got hostile or tried to win as individuals, the quality of our product would suffer,” Ferguson says.

Do you cultivate or stifle conflict? Use our checklist to make sure you’re encouraging constructive conversations.