Make Conflict Your Ally

Mission Capital works to build the strength and capabilities of teams and leaders in Central Texas nonprofits. As a senior consultant on our Learning & Leadership team, I research, design and deliver trainings on a host of talent management topics.

conflict_avoidanceEmployee engagement: fun!
Organizational learning: fascinating!
Core values: bring them on!
Conflict mitigation: … um, yay?

I’m a head-on problem solver, and even I feel a bit like burying my head in the sand when I think about workplace conflict. Over the last several months as I work with my colleague, Robin Llewellyn, developing customized trainings for nonprofits to help them understand and use conflict in a healthy way, I’ve learned a thing or two about the benefits of workplace conflict.

Conflict can encourage innovation.

Conflict avoidance is the enemy of collaboration. Collaboration isn’t about always agreeing—it’s about honing great ideas across a diverse set of people. When that set of people disagree in a healthy and respectful way, it can spark new, better ideas.

Conflict can foster group solidarity.

Ever have a disagreement, and come out of it feeling like you know yourself and the other person a little better? When you can disagree, express yourself, and hear and be heard by the other party, it can strengthen your relationship. When employees feel free to speak their mind and engage in healthy conflict across an organization, it can build a stronger, more cohesive team.

Conflict happens.

No two ways about it. Where two or more people work together, there will be some level of conflict. The more people, the more complex conflict can become. If there’s no way to truly avoid conflict, make it your ally.

You might be thinking, “Okay, so some conflict may be a good thing. But where do I start?”

1. Build a common language
One of the tools I’ve seen resonate most with our clients is providing their staff a common language to talk about individuals’ behaviors.michael_scott

We use the Behavioral Styles DISC Assessment to help our clients build a common understanding and language for why we behave the way we do. When you can attribute your behavior and those of your colleagues to a natural style and preferences—and when you have words to describe these differences—it makes it easier to approach disagreement at work. As a “high C” (C for “compliance”) on the DISC assessment, I know I tend to be task-focused and drill down into the details, while my “high I” (I for “influence”) colleagues may be more interested in nurturing the relationships of those at the table. I’m able to temper my responses so that I’m best heard by my coworkers—and they do the same for me. “Hey High I’s, we’ll start the meeting in 5 minutes so that you can catch up, and then I’m going to get all “high C” on you for about 30 minutes as we review this plan step by step.”

2. Check your assumptions.
One of the common sources of conflict in the workplace is miscommunication—whether interpreting something that wasn’t communicated clearly, or reading intention into the lines of an email. One of the things we recommend to clients is to check assumptions. I may assume that my coworker is peeved with me when she tersely greets me in the hallway—but unless I check that assumption with her, I won’t know that she’s actually just really tired from a long night with a sick toddler.

Ask_questions3. Approach conflict curiously.
Many of us experience an emotional reaction to conflict. When we respond curiously to a conflict instead, we might find the objectivity needed to address the situation head on. Ask yourself:

  • What is driving this conflict?
  • What have I contributed to this situation? What has the other party?
  • What’s motivating me in this situation? What’s motivating the other party?
  • Do we have a shared interest that can serve as a common place to begin working through our disagreement?


Whatever approach you take, we encourage you to harness conflict for the benefit of your organization. And if you need someone to think things through with you, give us a ring or attend an upcoming training! Our Conflict Mitigation & Team Dynamics Intensive is designed to help your nonprofit’s team celebrate your differences and maximize your talents, while staying committed to the work your mission requires. We also offer customized training to identify your organization’s opportunities for growth and meet your real-time needs.

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