The Hidden Opportunity in Conflicts at Work

Research shows that coolheaded managers can turn on-the-job disagreements into big gains, writes emotional intelligence expert Daniel Goleman.

Daniel Goleman, author of the bestseller “Emotional Intelligence,” is a regular contributor to Korn Ferry.

Disagreements, all too common in the workplace, don't have to be a bad thing. They become problematic when those involved shift their focus to being "right," rather than being heard.

However, Amy Gallo at Harvard Business Review has reviewed research on conflict in work settings, and her findings are surprising: Managers and leaders who view conflict as an opportunity rather than a problem can realize tangible benefits.  When the disagreeing parties can articulate the superiority of their solution to a challenge, creative outcomes can emerge—a happy hybrid of opposing views, or something entirely new. This, in turn, cascades into improved relationships, as workers come to understand and appreciate their colleagues' divergent ideas and original thought processes.

If you are about to get into a debate at work, planning can be a powerful tool for making those conflicting views productive. When you anticipate a meeting or conversation that will likely be challenging, think through your main points, and make sure you are able to express them clearly and directly. As much as possible, think about the situation in positive terms: opportunities to grow, as opposed to a list of shortcomings. Take time to consider the other side's perspective and remain aware of your own feelings and reactions.

There's a good chance that your coworkers want the company to succeed, just as you do. Why do they think a certain approach is best? Why does their perspective bother you? Notice your emotional state during these conversations and be willing to compromise.

Of course, cooler heads don't always prevail, and disagreements can result in frustration or resentment. In that case emotional intelligence becomes particularly important. In order to resolve a conflict, you need to draw on competencies such as self-awareness, conflict management skills, organizational awareness, influence, and inspirational leadership. Being able to wield this cluster of competencies as you navigate complexities and relationships will help you rise above the conflict and win over your peers in ways that take all compelling viewpoints into account. 

To make conflict productive, view it as a learning experience, not a contest. Emotionally intelligent leadership begins with staying clear about the overall objective of an organization or endeavor. Keeping the focus on strategic goals prevents a conflict from shifting to damaging attacks on the individual. Not only can this be beneficial to the relationships of all involved, but it also keeps the conversation on-topic, heading towards productive resolution.

Friction is essential for movement. Like a car spinning its wheels on an icy road, a workplace without disagreement is at risk for getting left behind. Emotional intelligence competencies, like conflict management, empathy and self-awareness, can provide the guidance necessary to disagreement into a productive force that drives innovation and success.

And the most essential tool? Listening. Even if you still disagree, the other person will be calmer and more open to your perspective once they’ve had the chance to express their own views.