According to the National Institute for Advanced Conflict Resolution, up to 30% of a typical leader’s time is spent dealing with conflict. Further research found that over 65% of work performance problems are due to strained relationships between employees as opposed to deficiencies in employee skill or motivation, and CEOs and senior vice presidents reported they spend up to 70% of their time on conflict. These statistics combined with the negative connotation of the term “conflict” (it is often associated with war) can lend support to a commonly-held belief in organizations that conflict in the workplace is bad. Although these statistics merit attention, this commonly-held belief is a little misleading.

A closer look at conflict can provide some clarity. The two most common types of conflict are relationship conflict and task conflict. Relationship conflict entails interpersonal friction, anger and personality disputes. Task conflict relates to interpersonal differences about the actual work being done. It could be argued that relationship conflict is bad (because it can be dysfunctional), and task conflict is good (because it focuses on the job at hand). This still would be misleading. From a broader perspective, conflict in and of itself is not necessarily good or bad. It merely represents disagreement between two or more parties (e.g., individuals, teams, etc.). What really makes conflict good or bad is not the disagreement, but how it is handled. Therefore, both relationship conflict and task conflict could become dysfunctional if they are not managed in an appropriate manner to bring about a resolution.

When it is managed properly, disagreement can be very desirable, because it can result in positive outcomes. Such disagreement can help ensure a variety of perspectives are considered that can lead to the creation of more effective solutions. By-products of this managed disagreement would include clearer communication, better understanding and increased productivity.

Given the benefits of properly managed conflict, logic suggests that leaders and employees should proactively address conflict situations to ensure they are handled in the optimal manner for the business. Unfortunately, many people reactively address conflict situations once they become problems, because it has become imperative that the situations be resolved. Then, there are others who try to avoid these situations altogether.

The most common reason for this less-than-proactive behavior is that these leaders and employees are uncomfortable addressing conflict, because they are unsure how to manage it in an efficient way. With this in mind, these individuals could begin to increase their proficiency at managing conflict by realizing there is more than one approach for doing so. In other words, the approach should be adjusted depending upon the nature of the situation.

Approaches based on the work of Kenneth Thomas and Ralph Kilmann could be used as starting points. One situation might entail quickly finding a mutually-acceptable solution that partially satisfies all parties. Another situation might involve delaying until a later point in time to allow more information to be gathered. In a third circumstance, the parties could work together to find a solution that fully satisfies all concerns. Like anything else, proficiency comes with practice. Consequently, taking the initiative to address situations where disagreement exists by customizing approaches accordingly will become easier the more it is done over time.


Ryan Lahti is the founder and managing principal of OrgLeader, LLC. Stay up to date on Ryan’s STEM-based organization tweets here: @ryanlahti