Skip to main content



August 05, 2020

Building a Culture that Includes Productive Conflict

Categories:  Assessments | Teaming | Culture
“70% of managers, supervisors, directors, and executives said that interpersonal conflict negatively impacts efficiency in their departments. Managers, directors, and executives spend an average of 3.2 hours a week dealing with conflict” (one month a year!). (Wiley study)

In this article, we cover what productive conflict is and how it can transform, two models of conflict, recipe for productive conflict, and working with conflict in virtual teams.

What is Productive Conflict?

Productive Conflict is defined as the opportunity to make the most of a conflict situation – at the moment it is occurring. Productive Conflict is defined as the opportunity to make the most of a conflict situation – at the moment it occurs.

Conflict is a normal part of our working lives. In teams and companies where there is productive conflict, teams and companies flourish. In teams and companies where it is discouraged, suppressed, and or poorly conducted, people struggle to provide consistent success, and leaders spend significant amounts of time performing conflict resolution (something that typically occurs AFTER a conflict incident).

We further define Productive conflict as “an open exchange of conflicting or differing ideas in which parties feel equally heard, respected, and unafraid to voice dissenting opinions to reach a mutually agreeable resolution.” Team members experience it as a spirited debate about ideas and concepts that concludes such that the team can buy-in and commit to the decision.

Whereas we define unproductive conflict as “an argument, especially a repetitive one, without resolution, that leaves both parties feeling more angry and frustrated.” And there is destructive conflict which we define as mean-spirited debate that includes personal attacks.

Productive Conflict is ever more important now during this time as stress and tensions may be higher. There is greater pressure to produce to keep organizations viable and prove your job worthwhile simultaneously managing kids and/or elderly parents in a home space (or modified workplace) that you’ve been confined to for almost five months. Add to that the political tensions that have now entered the workplace and social conversations further exaggerating the likelihood of destructive or unproductive conflict.

The benefits of productive conflict are buy-in and commitment to ideas and team decisions. Teams learn more about the ideas and their possibilities during healthy conflict and spirited debate. Teams have seen and heard all sides of the topics. Conflict - if done right - is integral to a highly engaging culture and organizational success Today’s struggle leads to tomorrow’s breakthrough.

Keeping the conflict productive reduces the need for conflict resolution later. Cleaning it up in the moment reduces the need for leaders to spend time performing conflict resolution.

For organizations to THRIVE in today’s modern working environment, they must teach their workforce how to navigate conflict effectively.

Recipe for Product Conflict

Navigating conflict in the moment does not remove the discomfort that comes along with conflict. So, the question becomes: What does it take to create a culture where people engage in productive conflict? What are the ingredients?

At The Heffelfinger Company, we believe the recipe for Productive Conflict occurs when team members trust each other to:

  • Understand their and others’ conflict styles
  • Recognize destructive thoughts & habitual responses
  • Catch & reframe destructive thoughts when the conflict occurs
  • Choose a more productive response
  • Maintain a commitment to finding a mutually agreeable solution
  • Apologize and accept apologies when someone fails in their attempts in the above.

So how do we bring these ingredients together?

Two conflict models, we can learn from

In the Thomas-Kilmann model, each style is a specialist in an essential aspect of the team process:

  • Advocating positions that have merit (Competitor)
  • Finding innovative win-win solutions (Collaborator)
  • Managing time costs (Avoider)
  • Building goodwill (Accommodator)
  • Providing moderation & balance (Compromiser)
  • Each is coming from a place of positive contribution

In this model, team members recognize their strengths and the strengths of their teammates and leverage those strengths to the benefit of the entire team and the organization in which they work.

In the Wiley Everything DiSC Productive Conflict model, seen below, we can recognize our own productive and sometimes destructive tendencies in each of the four behavioral styles of Dominance, Influence, Steadiness, and Conscientiousness.

Conflict in virtual teams

What happens when your team is virtual, such as now when most teams are working virtually? How do you have the conflict necessary to get team buy-in and commitment and keep it productive?

“Conflict in virtual teams is more likely to be negative for performance and is more likely to escalate,” Lindred Greer, professor of organizational behavior at Stanford Graduate School of Business

Research shows that “conflict contagion” may be more common among virtual teams.

Ways to manage conflict in virtual teams (source: The Virtual Hub)

  1. Lead from the front. Successful leaders understand the needs of their team members and ensure that the work environment is adapted to increase the relationship and trust among the team.
  2. Have regular team meetings If you can’t physically meet face-to-face, regular meetings via video meeting platforms are the next best thing. High-performing virtual teams make time for these meetings on a regular schedule. The relationships built help foster Trust.
  3. Create space and time for people to voice concerns. The nature of remote communication means that people can wallow up and let concerns fester over time. There could be something bugging a team member that is impacting their day, and you may never know if you don’t create space and encourage them to come forward. Create an atmosphere for Trust.
  4. Have a shared workspace online. A constant and clear flow of communication should be encouraged, and it’s essential that you have the right tools in place to make this as simple as possible. Train the team members about what good teamwork requires.

What are your current challenges?

We would love to hear how you are managing conflict in your virtual teams. What is the biggest challenge you are facing in working with leaders of virtual teams? Email James

 Lead on!

Lori & James

Lori Heffelfinger, MSOD, PCC & James Jackman, MSOD

Back to All Posts

How to Make Cool Leaders Great and Great Organizations Better.

Download our free guide

61d727e911249 (1)