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When it comes to relationships, conflict is inevitable – at home and especially with the people we work with. But these “fights” don’t have to be negative. Psychologists studying the workplace are finding that coworkers can disagree — and, yes, even fight — while still showing respect for each other. And here’s the kicker, fighting the “right way” can actually improve performance!

So, if “fighting” at work is a “good thing”, why do so many of us try to avoid it like it’s COVID-19? Well, it turns out that our brains can’t really decipher the difference between “good” fights and “bad” fights. So for many of us, the most comfortable response is avoidance! But, let’s be honest… avoidance hasn’t always been the best, most productive course for you, your team, your customers and your business, has it? And, if you’re a leader, you know you need to encourage healthy disagreements at work because they lead to creativity and better performance!

Challenge:

“Stop fighting!”. Every parent has used these words. But, what if you told your kids, “Fight better”? Would this affect the outcome? Your default may be to avoid conflict, but fight that urge!

Just like children who are watching a parent’s every action, your coworkers are watching you. Like it or not, they are observing (and making judgements on) how you handle conflict. Are you an easy push-over, an aggressive brute, or do you productively manage disagreements and encourage healthy conflict? As the leader, you set the example — both positively and negatively — as to what your coworkers can expect and what they can get away with. And, truly, you’re supposed to be the model your team follows.

Psychological Principle:

There is a term in psychology called the “amygdala hijack” (Daniel Goleman, 1996 book Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ). This is the same thing as the “fight or flight” response that happens when we’re faced with a conflict. During amygdala hijack, our brains don’t recognize the difference between a skunk popping up on the bike trail and a colleague objecting to your proposed project agenda in front of your boss in a staff meeting. Both scenarios make our brains scream “Help!”

Psychologists are finding that fear makes people less creative. This fact shows the importance of “psychological safety” where leaders encourage staff to express their creativity and differences without fear of retribution.

You cannot have an innovative team if healthy conflict is not welcomed and encouraged. If people with different points of view are not in the room and empowered to speak up, you will likely end up where you’ve always been, or worse—missing out on great new ideas. Complacency is what we should be afraid of – not fighting.

Mindset Shift:

  • When you’re in a conflict, be open to looking at it with a sense of curiosity instead of fear. Ask yourself, “What information does this person have that can help both of us move forward?”
  • Look at conflict as a way to get to collaboration instead of a barrier. By bringing your best self to these conversations and encouraging others to do the same, our organizations and teams will be better for it. (Check out my book – “Say This, Not That” for more tips on how to have these difficult conversations. (INSERT link to Amazon).

Performance Shift:

  • Encourage your team to disagree in meetings. Have members of your team take turns purposely disagreeing – playing the devil’s advocate – and see what creative ideas come forward!
  • Leaders must prime their teams to disagree. You’ll have both “conflict avoiders” and “conflict seekers” in your group, and it’s leadership’s role to bring those two sides together to get the best out of everyone.

Working to make a business function more like a family is not the goal – working to make the business function like a GOOD family is the goal. Families argue, families disagree, families even fight. But, good families don’t backstab, they don’t talk behind each other’s backs, and they don’t avoid fighting. Rather, they DO fight! They just fight better, more productively, and with better intentions. And, once they fight, they then unite.

Although most people perceive conflict to be negative, conflict can be incredibly positive. When individuals and teams understand how to navigate conflict effectively and collaboratively, it can bring numerous benefits to every environment and relationship.

And that’s exactly what our solutions and sessions are designed to do for clients. We show managers and leaders how to “fight the good fight”. If you want to learn more about how you can add more value and explore better ways to be productive, reach out to Chris!

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Co-Authored By: Betsy Moore, Industrial/Organizational Psychology Consultant & Health Coach

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