Four coworkers sitting in a meeting in a conference room.
A business owner must channel tension and disagreement into positive outcomes instead of destructive conflict, which thwarts innovation, hurts morale and increases turnover. — Getty Images/shapecharge

Disagreement is normal, in life and in business. But in many companies, voicing alternative views can get a person pegged as rude or angry. A culture of conflict avoidance develops: Dissent is stifled, frustrations simmer, and teamwork grinds to a halt.

But well-managed disagreements force employees to learn and grow, improve working relationships, lift job satisfaction, and forge better business outcomes, Amy Gallo, author of the “Guide to Dealing with Conflict at Work,” wrote in the Harvard Business Review. “There is no such thing as a conflict-free work environment,” she wrote.

“Tension is essential to effective organizations,” said Liane Davey, whose book “The Good Fight: Use Productive Conflict to Get Your Team and Organization Back on Track” explains how companies can create a healthy conflict culture. “So you want lots and lots and lots of tension, because tension is this force that sort of stretches you, makes you bigger.”

Here’s the catch: A business owner must channel tension and disagreement into positive outcomes instead of destructive conflict, which thwarts innovation, hurts morale and increases turnover. The smallest companies are best positioned to turn tension into opportunity and avoid outright conflict, experts say, but the effort can become much more difficult as a growing business adds new leadership roles and brings in fresh talent and new ways of doing things.

Look for sources of conflict

Unproductive conflict and conflict avoidance are often rooted in bad management, where leaders fail to get employees with different areas of responsibility aligned on a path to achieve the same outcome, Davey told CO—.

Imagine two employees, one in charge of sales, the other production. Each works to achieve their individual goals but has no sense of a common mission nor the goals and challenges of their colleague. Now bring those two together for a meeting seeking solutions to some business challenge.

“What one person is trying to solve for in a situation is in tension with what another person is trying to solve for,” said Davey, whose consulting firm 3COze advises companies on teamwork. Neither can know how their comments will be received by the other, she added. Tension shifts into outright friction. Trust erodes, and things get personal. In the worst case, the conflict spirals into conflict avoidance, and nothing is accomplished.

Growing companies are particularly vulnerable to this problem. Tremendous tension can arise when a founder brings in new leaders or managers with much-needed fresh expertise, Davey explained. Perhaps, for example, an operations expert with an MBA is hired to streamline sales and production processes in what had been a seat-of-the-pants, family-run business.

“Ooh, man, he’s killing my mojo,” is the reaction you can expect from existing employees if they aren’t fully aligned with the apparent needs and new goals.

How each employee might react is less predictable. When their idea or authority is questioned, some people will be embarrassed or sad and may question themselves or withdraw, Davey said. Others may react with hostility. One thing to look for: Discomfort in a meeting that leads to the dreaded phrase, “Let’s take that offline.”

Tension is essential to effective organizations. So you want lots and lots and lots of tension, because tension is this force that sort of stretches you, makes you bigger.

Liane Davey, author, “The Good Fight: Use Productive Conflict to Get Your Team and Organization Back on Track”

Build bridges over fault lines

In small businesses where employees often fill multiple roles and processes are relatively unstructured, everyone in the company may naturally feel well connected to a common purpose. The interconnectedness fosters kinship based on shared experiences and, perhaps, similar backgrounds and even shared business vocabularies, explained Sherry Thatcher, a professor of business administration at the University of South Carolina.

In larger companies, kinship can develop within subgroups, pitting teams against each other, research by Thatcher and a colleague has shown.

And in a small but growing company, kinship can become a sudden, acute problem. If a newcomer is different in some way—whether in the jobs she’s held, her education, or even just looks or manners of speaking, and her mandate to create structure is perceived as a threat, serious tension is inevitable.

“Over time you have the same jokes that you draw upon, or the same experiences,” Thatcher told CO—. “And then a new manager shows up and, by nature of their just not having been a part of that, there's an initial us-versus-them. Over time that may dissipate, but if it doesn't, it can quickly solidify.” Entrenchments develop, and groups are divided by deepening fault lines, with team members validating their own us-versus-them perceptions, Thatcher and her colleagues reported in the Journal of Management Studies.

“Fault lines can be really, really detrimental,” she said. “The deeper the divide, the more those individual cracks align, then the harder it is going to be able to cross it or fix it.”

Among tactics Thatcher suggests for building bridges:

  • Constantly communicate shared goals.
  • Shuffle team members around to different jobs.
  • Engage people who will be accepted by two or more groups to play an active role in each.

Normalize tension and conflict

Davey offers a specific approach to resolving entrenched conflict productively: Call a meeting with the key players who are butting heads. Outline what you think are their primary roles in the company—could be as simple as three people in charge of producing the product, selling the product and handling customer service, for example. Then have each player answer out loud three questions:

  • What’s the unique function or expertise of each role? What is that person or group’s superpower?
  • Who are the primary stakeholders for that role? Who makes them jump the highest——customers, vendors, other employees?
  • What’s the one thing you and each of the other players does that causes tension? What frequently makes you or others in the company bristle?

As a facilitator, draw out specific examples of contentious issues, and emphasize that the different roles should be in tension. The exercise will force each player to see the opportunities and challenges of the other through a new lens.

“It normalizes these tensions,” Davey said. “It puts a label on them. It gives people a language to talk about it. You realize, ‘Oh wow, our reality, and what we need to create every day, is very different from one another. No wonder these things are in tension.’”

As leader, you can further normalize tensions, productively, through repetition in other meetings and settings.

“Talk about [tension] as absolutely essential to optimizing scarce resources,” Davey said. “And then every time you see it, reward it, reinforce it.” She even offers some useful language: “Great point. I hadn't thought about it through that lens. That's so good.”

CO— aims to bring you inspiration from leading respected experts. However, before making any business decision, you should consult a professional who can advise you based on your individual situation.

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