Why Conflict in Your Team Might Actually Be a Good Thing
Whether we like it or not, we each bring our own baggage to work each day. Each person shows up to work with their own individual experience, mental state, professional opinions, and emotional baggage. Put a dozen or more complex adults together and disagreement and conflict are inevitable.
Combine the group dynamic with a constant flood of information, simultaneous changes, and ongoing debates, and it’s easy to see why office conflicts are inevitable.
The problem is, that some of our issues rear their heads again and again and create real struggles at work. While disagreements and debates at work are healthy. Fighting is confusing and destructive. While disagreeing and debating can lead to innovation and solutions, fighting with people who have more or less power usually just feels like bullying.
What Does Fighting at Work Look Like?
Chances are, the adults in your office aren’t going to stomp their feet and throw a file at you like a toddler. (Although, I guess you never know.) Instead, fighting at work is usually displayed in a clash of personalities, a power struggle, or manipulation.
The Fighting Boss:
When the boss is the one who always seems to be in conflict with others, it’s usually due to one of these three common fighting bosses. See if you recognize any of these common boss types that may incite conflict at work.
- The Gaslighter:
These are the people who pretend there’s no problem even when it’s staring them in the face. They say things like, “I don’t see an issue here,” or “You’re too emotional.” They make it feel like you are the problem, and you’re the only one who is going crazy. This is infuriating to anyone who is quickly labeled as “unreasonable”. This is always an I-Win-You-Lose situation.
- The Bully:
We have all encountered a bully from time to time. These are simply aggressive people who are usually hyper-competitive, narcissistic and have a take-no-prisoners approach. They get their worth from dominating others and crushing the competition. They usually have a band of loyal followers and they can be ruthless when they get mad.
- The Slippery Snake:
Perhaps the sneakiest boss fighters are the passive-aggressive ones. Sure, they seem to be supportive, logical, and helpful – but they are so much better than that. They use their words as weapons and you don’t even realize you’ve been hit until much later. This is like shadow boxing, the opponent is almost invisible, but still extremely powerful.
The Fighting Employee:
Perhaps you have an employee who always seems to be picking a fight. Maybe you have a team that just can’t seem to move past the bickering? If so, chances are you may have one or more of these factors at work:
- The Insecure Instigator:
This is usually always at the top of the list. Someone who is confident and secure in their role has nothing to prove and is not aggressive. But when insecurity gets triggered, we may all start behaving in ways that even we don’t like. An insecure employee may try to hide their mistakes, avoid debates, shy away from disagreements, or be lashing out unnecessarily to protect themselves.
- The Power-Hungry Middleman:
Employees who are power-hungry are more concerned with positioning themselves above someone else rather than working together. They aren’t looking to lead, influence, support, or achieve goals – they have their own agenda. Usually, these employees keep their motives well hidden but are consistently concerned with who has power over whom or delegating resources appropriately.
- The Incessant Victim:
This is similar to insecurity, but a victim is helpless and plays everything small. Their favorite phrase is, “I can’t do anything about it.” In turn, they often end up getting kicked to the ground over and over again because they have made themselves comfortable there. Victimhood usually comes from a deep-rooted issue and likely won’t get solved at work. Victims act that way because it serves them in the end, escaping victimhood usually requires the help of a good therapist.
So, what’s the good part?
Conflict at work is real and pervasive. It can be just as painful as fights and struggles in other relationships. A fight at work can be just as raw, emotional, and gut-wrenching as a fight with our spouse. But that doesn’t mean it’s time to start checking the job boards. Sometimes a real argument can do some good.
According to psychotherapist Antoinette Giacobbe, “The worst part about anger is not expressing it. The more you repress it, the more it can damage your health.” Conflict is a chance for you to release frustration, be authentic, and speak your truth. All of which are essential for your mental and physical health.
The Benefits of Conflicts at Work:
For most managers and employees, conflict is something to avoid rather than an opportunity for understanding and involvement. However, productive conflict can actually be the best path forward.
- Increased Involvement:
When someone presents an idea and no one really cares, it’s probably not a great idea. Instead, a radical idea or huge change shakes things up. All of a sudden team members are energetic and debating, and real magic is happening.
- Creates Progress:
Sometimes it takes a boss who will challenge your writing style, criticize your presentation, and disagree with your ideas so you can progress. This road is never fun but is required in order to get better at your job and make real changes to your own professional potential.
- Prevents Big Problems:
When you avoid conflict, you just create massive problems later. Immediate conflict dealt within the moment can avoid permanent stress and frustration. By letting an argument drag on, you risk adding an extra layer of suffering each day.
- Encourages Creativity:
When everyone gets along and does the same things they always do, nothing new happens. Conflicts are uncomfortable but necessary for challenging the status quo. Think about how crazy Uber was before it basically replaced all taxi services. Conflict is required for identifying new solutions and potential risks.
- Improves Relationships:
Productive conflict allows everyone to bring their authentic selves to work. By no longer being afraid of disagreement, it’s easier to appreciate working as part of a team. Conflict can not only help teams improve their performance, but it can also create stronger healthier bonds.
- Creates Empathy
A well-managed conflict can cultivate real empathy and compassion for others. Understanding those you work with can help you drop harmful stereotypes.
Worth Fighting For
Our feelings matter, and they need to be attended to. Dealing with conflict at work starts with self-awareness. What are you insecure about? Why? How do you feel about power—yours and others? Do you dismiss the concerns of others? Or make yourself a victim? Why?
This kind of self-awareness isn’t superficial—it’s deep. And it takes time. Not just you, but your colleagues and your organization, too.
Buzzwords like consensus, compromise, unity, and positivity have taken over the workplace. But the real world isn’t that benevolent. This toxic-positivity culture leaves little room for real conflict in everyday life. The tyranny of harmony may actually have harmful consequences for avoiding office conflicts. Instead, allowing real and authentic vulnerability at work may create the company culture you really want and the level of success you are looking for.