An Argument for Conflict

by  Julie Winkle-Giulioni  |  Leadership Development

We’ve all experienced it. The meeting goes well. Everyone nods, smiles, and quickly agrees. There are no objections or even questions to answer. You leave feeling confident that your proposal will be unanimously adopted.

Then you hear about the meeting after the meeting… and the lingering concerns and worries that ‘everyone’ has… and you know that the torpedoes have already been launched and your proposal is sunk.

I call this dynamic ‘dysfunctional politeness.’ It costs organization dearly in terms of dollars, but it also takes an enormous human toll: disappointment, mistrust, frustration, and disengagement.

Each time we choose to be agreeable rather than raising legitimate concerns, offering candid feedback, or telling the truth about our reactions, we hurt both the results and our relationships with others.


The ability to engage in constructive conflict – focused on issues and expressed with respect – is a key hallmark of effective teams. And it makes sense. Openly airing different points of views and passionately testing ideas helps groups:

  • Identify and adjust faulty assumptions,
  • Eliminate or solve problems early, and
  • Bring the broadest and best thinking to decisions.

 “Conflict is what prevents all forms of stagnation and vulnerability from being overtaken by your competition.”
– Steven Berglas, consultant/clinical psychologist at Harvard Medical School

But beyond the business argument for constructive conflict, there’s a human one. It also builds relationships and teamwork. While it might seem counterintuitive, teams that engage in the most heated and intense conflicts are frequently the strongest. They know they can count on each other for absolute candor. They know that once the group makes a decision, everyone will own it and work toward its success. They know that whatever someone has to say will be shared in a forthright way that allows for the back-and-forth required to fully understand and respond to issues or concerns.

 “Tumultuous meetings are of a sign of progress.”
– Patrick Lencioni


Are you and your team not realizing the benefits of constructive conflict? Here are three steps you can take today to start cultivating this critical team competency.

Do a Personal Gut Check

Check your own reaction to conflict and evaluate the effect it has on your team. Your mindset drives your behavior. If differences make you tense, team members will pick up on that. If you rush in to smooth over minor disagreements, others will quickly learn that conflict is not OK… and dysfunctional politeness may creep in.

Set Expectations and Ground Rules

Share what you know about the value of conflict and the role it can play in helping your team achieve excellence. Brainstorm agreements that keep conflict safe. Examples include: focus on issues and ideas but never people; use respectful language always; listen to understand the other point of view fully before speaking.

Model the Conflict You Want to See

Your own behavior is the most powerful leadership tool at your disposal. Others learn far more from what you do than what you say. So model effective conflict daily. Challenge ideas in a respectful and supportive way. Test assumptions with open-ended questions. Demonstrate high-quality listening and the courage to ask questions that stir up productive controversy.

 “All polishing is done by friction.”
– Mary Parker Follett

What do you think…

How is dysfunctional politeness hurting your organization?

What does constructive conflict look like to you… and how do you promote it?

Art:  www.dreamstime.com and Liz Price

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What People Are Saying

Mike Henry  |  04 Feb 2013  |  Reply

I agree with your challenge to avoid dysfunctional politeness. That’s a great term. I’ve worked places where this was a problem. I’ve also worked in places where the conflict was dysfunctional. People need to remember to separate business from personal. We each want the company to succeed. When we put our own agenda ahead of the possibility that someone else may have a better idea, then even the conflict is dysfunctional. The dysfunction can be active or passive. This is a great reminder to check the absence of conflict and make sure it’s a sign of enthusiastic agreement.

Thanks for the great post. Mike…

Julie Winkle Giulioni  |  04 Feb 2013  |  Reply

Good point… and you’re right. Conflict that takes a personal turn, that’s intended to destroy rather than create, or that’s based upon entrenched positions does tremendous damage – to relationships and to the organization as a whole. As leaders, we need to constantly monitor and ensure that we’re operating in that zone where conflict is respectful, constructive and productive.

Jon Mertz  |  04 Feb 2013  |  Reply

Like the concept of modeling the conflict you want to see. I think this can be a powerful way to ensure issues and challenges are addressed in a meaningful way while maintaining civility and progress. We cannot ignore conflict, so embracing it with a leadership attitude and approach will produce better results. Thanks!

Julie Winkle Giulioni  |  04 Feb 2013  |  Reply

Yes… civility and progress are not mutually exclusive… especially when conflict is approached with a ‘leadership attitude’. (Love that expression!) Thanks for contributing to the conversation.

Stosh D. Walsh  |  05 Feb 2013  |  Reply

Great post. I find a lot of leaders lack the courage to initiate or invite this kind of conflict, and I am often coaching them to consider ways in which they can invite it. One of the most successful in my experience is, ironically, to delegate it. Let someone else play the role of dissenter, devil’s advocate, even curmudgeon, but be specific about that role to the rest of the team so it is valued. What ideas have proved successful in your work with leaders to avoid this issue?

Julie Winkle Giulioni  |  06 Feb 2013  |  Reply

Love that one… and I’ve found a lot of success with it as well. (Although I’ve never used the term curmudgeon around the activity, I just might start!) I’m a strong believer in setting clear expectations, having overt conversations about the value of/need for conflict, and showing people how to do it by regularly modeling effective conflict behaviors. It doesn’t take long before others will begin to give it a try. Thanks, Stosh, for your thoughts.

Dan_IEDP  |  07 Feb 2013  |  Reply

I think I had experience of this just this morning! *gulp*
There was a fast, ‘immediate action’ route to fixing a problem – which one stakeholder was pushing hard for, and a ‘longer game’ championed by another. These disparate approaches fell into a natural opposition – with Mr. Action accusing Mr. Long-game of inaction and ‘drifting’, and Mr.Long-game accusing Mr.Action of rushing in headstrong without all the info. I have been stuck in between mediating for a month. We had a breakthrough meeting this morning, which essentially passes over the quick fix, and implements the ‘long-game’ – but in a much more immediate way than it ever would have happened without the conflict from Mr.Action.

These two particular stakeholders, in fact – existing at either end of a certain spectrum – often ram up against each other and the result is a very strong middle road. If you can achieve that kind of balance of approaches, and where you can have a strong enough, respectful enough relationship (essentially a friendship in this instance, but admittedly that isn’t always possible) – then that’s a recipe for some great, conflict-inspired success I think.
Hopefully that wasn’t too abstract!

Julie Winkle Giulioni  |  07 Feb 2013  |  Reply

Thanks so much, Dan, for sharing this experience and bringing the idea to life. You are so right… when harnessed constructively and respectfully, the energy and ideas that emanate from the opposing ends of the spectrum can be powerful fodder for change.

It also sounds like YOU might have played a pretty big role in facilitating what could have otherwise been a really frustrating log-jam. If you’re willing, I (and I’ll bet lots of others) would love to hear what steps you took to help this conflict deliver such results.

David M. Dye  |  10 Feb 2013  |  Reply

Thanks for this post, Julie,

One time I was discussing with a mentor the lack of conflict in meetings I ran. My mentor guided me to examine how I was presenting information and fostering dialogue. I genuinely wanted it and believed in the value of healthy conflict, (and it didn’t make me tense) but I was unconsciously dampening it in the way I introduced topics. That was a critical learning opportunity!

Take care,


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