Answer the following question: Is workplace conflict a) uncomfortable, b) necessary, c) preventable or d) all of the above? If you picked D, go to the head of the class.
Conflict is natural and normal, and it helps teams advance their work. In fact, conflict and goal achievement are natural partners. According to Harvard Business Review, conflict can improve ideas, expose risks and generate trust. Healthy conflict also spurs creativity, broad thinking and respectful relationships. Unhealthy conflict, on the other hand, is a Petri dish for distrust, disrespect and infighting.
When I coach clients about conflict, I tell them to look at it like any other key business issue. For instance, if a supplier became habitually late filling orders, they wouldn’t just ignore it. If they received a deluge of complaints about slow customer service, they wouldn’t simply sweep it under the rug.
I believe the same should be true about conflict. But because conflict can be so personally uncomfortable, clients often don’t see that it’s really just like any other key issue that must be addressed. Instead, they tend to look the other way. So, it’s critical to be strategic by first assessing the type of conflict you’re experiencing and then deciding the best strategy to address it.
To begin, I find it’s helpful to figure out what kind of conflict is going on. There are four general conflict categories, according to Amy Gallo, author of the HBR Guide to Managing Conflict at Work. Those categories are task, process, relationship and status.
• Task conflict is about the actual work at hand. It’s often about the goal or how to perform the work itself. When addressed effectively, I believe task conflict can actually be healthy because it could help a team perform more optimally.
• Process conflict is about logistics, details and how to do a certain job. I’ve found that sometimes, this type of conflict can be a mask for a deeper issue. For example, an argument about logistics might actually be rooted in a conflict related to relationships or status. To some, the true cause of the conflict might seem too risky to bring up, so they focus on a safer topic.
• Relationship conflict relates to personality differences. While this type of conflict is not specifically about a goal or priority, it can derail a team’s performance. Emotions can flare, back-biting can arise and gossip can become infectious.
• Status conflict is about power. Wanting to maintain control, influence and territory are all characteristics of status conflict; you disagree about who’s in control.