An Argument for Conflict

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: and Liz Price

Twitter feed is not available at the moment.