Debate club: Conflict in the workplace can be constructive

For high performing teams, effective communication starts with embracing friction

Two coworkers share a set of binoculars indicating that they have effectively communicated a solution to their workplace challenge and found a shared perspective around how to move forward.
Image Credit: Kelsey Wroten

Having productive disagreements, an essential component of effective communication, could be central to your workplace happiness and to overall team productivity. A new study commissioned by Slack revealed that 80% of workers want more trust and transparency in the workplace and 91% want to feel closer to their colleagues.

Beyond building better bonds between coworkers, Andrew de Maar, head of strategy at Deloitte’s Center for the Edge, notes that conflict between team members can even illuminate new business opportunities and solutions. “Differences in background experience and opinion can lead to fresh insights and perspectives that can directly affect how a product is made, how it’s brought to market, and how it’s received by customers,” he says.  

For these workplace dreams to become a reality, it means a shift toward more honest, open communication at the office. This can be uncomfortable if you consider yourself conflict-averse, but there are ways to disagree with your colleagues and keep the peace on the clock.

The business benefits of having (civil) disagreements with coworkers

According to Amy Gallo, a contributing editor at the Harvard Business Review, encouraging team members to question whether there’s a different approach is the kind of “creative friction [that] is likely to lead to new solutions.” That’s right—disrupting the status quo can often take your team projects further than just going with the flow. Disagreements at work also allow employees to:

  • Feel more freedom at work. A workplace culture that embraces disagreements creates a safe space for sharing your ideas.
  • Gain a new perspective. This space is also extended to your coworkers, who might present solutions that hadn’t occurred to you.
  • Strengthen coworker bonds. As with any other relationship, successfully navigating conflict deepens the closeness between two people.

But disagreement is only productive with effective communication, and that requires a few ground rules.

What are the rules of effective communication and conflict resolution in the workplace?

Debates at work don’t have to be discouraging or disparaging; they can be rich dialogues in which multiple perspectives are heard in order to reach the best decision. Hallmarks of healthy workplace disagreements include:

  • Remaining respectful. Respect during a disagreement looks like question asking, deep listening, and other efforts to gain a better understanding of where the other person is coming from.
  • Staying polite. Being rude at work will only get you rudeness in return. The Wall Street Journal reported that rudeness can harm job performance and your sense of belonging, and even come off as bullying.
  • Maintaining a positive outlook. It can be our natural instinct to take all feedback as negative criticism. By remaining positive and open-minded, we can more easily engage in discussions that conflict with our point of view.

The most important thing when disagreements crop up on your team is to make sure arguments don’t grow heated. New York Times best-selling author Liane Davey has some advice for the best way to cool down a conflict between coworkers, “The minute you accept that the conflict is productive and that the person you’re in conflict with is worthy, the nature of the conflict will immediately change for the better,” she says. “The tone will improve as the conflict becomes centered on the ideas rather than the individuals who are presenting them.”

Tips for healthy workplace debates

Shauntrice Martin, executive director of the Bay Area Urban Debate League, has taken the skills she learned in her youth through debate and applied them to her career. To keep things amicable on a team project, Martin suggests:

  • Outline the guidelines. Begin with a checklist. At work, Martin and her team use a spreadsheet to define what the goals and objectives of a project are and who is responsible for what. “Having clearly defined goals, just like in debate, is going to get you as a team to that win more effectively,” she says. “Make sure there are regular check-ins.”
  • Choose your battles. Be willing to agree to disagree, but don’t be afraid to fight for what you’re passionate about—especially if you’re a woman, black, or part of another underrepresented group. As Martin reminds us, the worst that can be said is no. She’s found that when she speaks up, “in those times it has not only been better for me personally but also for the organizations I’ve worked for.”
  • Organize your thoughts beforehand. Excelling at debate requires practicing what you’re going to say a lot. Doing the same when you’re headed into a work negotiation can help the conversation stay on track and lead to a more productive discussion, says Martin. She recommends drafting yourself a note with all the points you want to make and reading it aloud to someone you trust, so “that when you are in the middle of the round or in the middle of the staff meeting, you know how to present your points in a way that has others focusing on a solution and not on you as the presenter.”

How leaders and managers can encourage and invite ideas, questions, and opinions in the workplace

Leaders set the tone for how organizations can create safe spaces for raising concerns or sharing ideas. Some trailblazers in open, honest communication have been:

  • Rodney Williams, the founder of Lisnr, told us earlier this year that to encourage innovation, he and his team lean into the discomfort around disagreement: “I think when you’re too comfortable, you’re too complacent, and then if you’re too comfortable, I don’t think you innovate.”
  • Bozoma Saint John, who previously led brand and marketing at Uber and Apple Music, told Fast Company that she used the mixed response to the first iteration of Apple Music to drive herself toward greater things: “I think it is a motivator, makes you want to do better, find better solutions.” She encourages those around her to view criticism neutrally. “Any criticism, you should pay attention to. Whether you accept it and change or you take it and move on is your choice, but criticism is not a bad thing.”
  • Ed Catmull, president of Pixar, described a tradition known as the “brain trust” that he created to give ideas and opinions breathing room. The goal of the group is to remove the power structure between production teams and the higher-ups. “That’s when the magic happens,” he says. “And by magic, I mean the ego has left the room.”

Good communication is the cornerstone of workplace culture

Changing expectations around job satisfaction, how our work reflects who we are, and the increase in remote workers means that being able to effectively communicate in the workplace is only going to become more crucial in the future. Learning about productive disagreement techniques will make collaboration easier, bonds between colleagues deeper, and businesses more innovative in the long run.

Minda Honey is a workplace of one, so disagreements tend to always go her way.

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