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Productive Conflict is a Must at Work

Given the increase in anxiety and division in the world today, the chances for conflict at work have increased. Despite best intentions, sometimes different personalities, heavy workloads, lack of respect, and cultural differences can lead to non-productive conflicts with coworkers or customers. According to a survey by CPP Inc of 5,000 full-time employees in nine countries, 85% of employees deal with conflict at work. This same study found that US workers spend more than 2.5 hours per week in a conflict. The estimated impact of non-productive conflict in America is well over $1.5 billion annually, not to mention the emotional and psychological costs on the workforce. Beyond employee productivity and wellbeing, a study by the Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development of 2195 UK employees found that one in ten cases of conflict results in employee turnover. Of course, it is natural to want to minimize workplace conflict. Still, it is necessary to manage conflict and realize that productive conflict can have many positive outcomes.

When you hear the word conflict, do you have mostly positive or negative feelings? Many people tend to have negative feelings associated with the word. However, conflict is not necessarily referring to aggressive confrontations or arguments. Conflict could mean a heated argument or a simple difference of opinion. The distinction lies in the importance of the issue and the amount of energy you put into it. Conflict is not a sign of failure, but when it is avoided or ignored, we make it something worse.

  • Productive conflict is an open exchange of conflicting or differing ideas. Parties feel equally heard, respected, and unafraid to voice dissenting opinions to reach a mutually comfortable resolution.

  • Non-productive conflict is an exchange of conflicting or differing ideas. Parties do not feel equally heard, respected, and afraid to voice dissenting opinions.

    • Non-productive conflict arises when the real issues are not discussed, and attention is placed on trivial matters resulting in the conflict escalating.

Productive conflict requires a healthy workplace culture and a strong commitment and dedication from everyone within the workplace. Conflict impacts more than just those that recognize the conflict. It is easy to miss the hidden cost of non-productive conflict in the workforce and the company's performance. Also, it is important to realize that our reactions to conflict can result in either positive or negative consequences.

3 Tips for Avoiding Non-Productive Conflict in the Workplace

When it comes to productive conflict, understanding what NOT to do is just as important as understanding what to do. The following are some tips to keep you from mismanaging conflict at work:

  1. Don't wait around and do nothing. If a conflict is left unresolved, it will escalate over time with win-lose outcomes.

  2. Don't let your bias drive your solution to the issue. We all have biases, and it is essential to reflect on the situation and people involved before moving to solutions.

  3. Don't approach workplace conflict without a plan. As the saying goes, if you fail to plan, you plan to fail. Take time to prepare a productive conflict approach, so you are not just reacting without thinking.

3 Tips for Productive Conflict in the Workplace

As we mentioned earlier, successfully creating productive conflict requires a healthy workplace culture and the dedication and commitment of the workforce. Invest the energy when times are tough. Avoiding conflict also takes time and energy. Avoiding conflict will only make matters worse for you, those involved, and the impact on your company. Commit and act. Like rapids in a river, there will be a time of conflict and calm. Both are natural and healthy for every workplace. The following are three tips for what you should do:

  1. Have a plan for how you are going to approach conflict in your workplace. Your plan should include answers to what, when, where, how, and why specific to the situation and those involved.

  2. Provide training for your leaders and employees on how to deal with workplace conflict. Training on creating productive conflict and communication should go beyond initial onboarding training for new employees.

  3. Be sure that everyone takes ownership in resolving non-productive workplace conflict. Create a culture of accountability for productive conflict that starts with your leadership. As Gandhi said, "be the change you wish to see in the world."

How to Develop Your Productive Conflict Skills

One of my favorite tools for assessing an individual's expectations and desires in conflict situations is the Thomas-Killman Conflict Mode Instrument (TKI). It is quick to complete and easy to understand for teams and individuals at any organizational level. The instrument describes behavior along the axes of assertiveness to satisfy personal concerns and cooperativeness to meet the other person's concerns. Using the TKI helps team members get to know each other and identify potential challenges and strategies to manage conflict constructively before a conflict arises. The TKI model describes five types of conflict and the methods for successfully managing conflict: (1) competing, (2) collaborating, (3) compromising, (4) avoiding, and (5) accommodating.

Note: Conflict model adapted from Thomas (1992).

Remember that disagreements do not have to be divisive and what you choose to do or not do will largely determine if you achieve productive conflict.

Key Points

  • Productive conflict competence is a must, and it contributes to organizational effectiveness.

  • A non-productive conflict will likely escalate if not managed, and the time to intervene is when the conflict arises.

  • While non-productive conflict can have negative consequences, productive conflict is a force for positive change and more inclusive workplaces when managed successfully.


Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development. (2015). Getting under the skin of workplace conflict: Tracing the experiences of employees.

Hayes, J. (2008). Workplace conflict and how businesses can harness it to thrive. CPP Global Human Capital Report.

SHRM. (2021). Managing workplace conflict. Toolkits.

Thomas, K. W. (1992). Conflict and conflict management: Reflections and update. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 13(3), 265-274.


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About Dr. Jeff Doolittle

He is the founder of Organizational Talent Consulting in Grand Rapids, MI, and Program Director of online graduate and continuing business education at Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais, IL. Executive leaders who work with Jeff describe him as thoughtful, decisive, intelligent, and collaborative. Jeff is a business executive with over twenty years of talent development and organizational strategy experience working with C-suite leaders in Fortune 100, Forbes top 25 private, for-profit, non-profit, and global companies in many industries.

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