Unpleasant though it may be, conflict in the workplace is inevitable. In fact, it’s often necessary to get things done.
Unpleasant though it may be, conflict in the workplace is inevitable. In fact, it’s often necessary to get things done. But why is some conflict healthy and constructive, while other disagreements escalate out of control?
A recent paper in the Academy of Management Review says it’s not just the nature of a disagreement but the way it is expressed that leads to a positive or negative result at work. Drawing on their own and others’ research, the authors identified four main types of conflict expression:
High directness/high intensity. Opposition is expressed unambiguously, accompanied by behavior like shouting, aggressive language and eye rolling.
High directness/low intensity. Communication is unambiguous, along with actions like debating and deliberating.
Low directness/high intensity. Opposition is expressed ambiguously and may include behavior such as “ignoring or discounting another’s perspective, mean-spirited teasing, social undermining to third parties, backstabbing or mobilizing a blocking coalition.”
Low directness/low intensity. This type of behavior is low voltage, but nevertheless insidious. “Examples include when people avoid saying what they really mean, withhold information, tease in fun, engage in incivility or engage in generalized passive-aggressive behavior, e.g., purposely missing a deadline.”
The preferred form of communication is high directness/low intensity, says the lead author of the paper, Laurie R. Weingart, who is a senior associate dean for education at the Tepper School of Business at Carnegie Mellon University. With this method, people tend not to focus on any personal stake they could have in their positions. They listen to others’ views and take them into account while working toward a positive outcome.
When conflict is expressed with high intensity, whether directly or indirectly, the issue can start to feel personal to the parties involved, says Weingart, who is also a professor of organizational behavior. People may respond by attacking others or defending themselves. They are more likely to dig into their positions without listening to other viewpoints and processing new information, meaning that an effective resolution is less likely.
When communication is indirect and ambiguous, chances are much greater that decisions will be made with incomplete or incorrect information, and the conflict will either escalate or be avoided altogether.
Weingart recognizes that people express and perceive disagreement in varying ways depending on their upbringing, culture and gender. What sounds like a shout to one person may register as a mild objection to someone else. A particular turn of phrase may register loud and clear with one group while sailing right over the heads of another.
That’s why leaders need to establish behavioral norms in the workplace, Weingart says. Subconsciously, people tend to mirror one another’s behavior; regardless of your personal background, the pull toward reciprocity is strong.
When more people understand what healthy communication looks like at work, and the more that people practice it, the more likely, she says, they will exhibit it themselves.