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Embrace Constructive Conflict In The Workplace

This article was based on episode 125 of The Modern Manager podcast. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to The Modern Manager Podcast on iTunes, Google Play, Spotify, iHeart Radio and Stitcher. Get the How to Have Tough Conversations Workbook

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While I’m always ready for a good, intellectual fight, even hearing the word “conflict” makes me queasy. I know I’m not alone. Most people tend towards conflict-avoidance, yet as managers, we must be able to navigate conflict productively.

Co-authors of The Beauty of Conflict: Harnessing Your Team’s Competitive Advantage, Susan Clarke and ChrisMarie Campbell, want to change our perspective. Instead of focusing on fear, they show the transformative power of engaging in conflict, even when it’s messy and uncomfortable. Susan explains how to recognize the critical moments of conflict, how to calm ourselves down when we get riled up, and how to effectively engage in conflict between team members as a manager.


This might seem like semantics, but words influence how we think and approach a situation. Susan describes a fight as one-sided; You have your opinion, and you try to do everything you can to win the argument. A conflict, on the other hand, is a (heated) discussion with no fixed destination or certain outcome. While you may have your point of view, you’re trying to work together with the other person to find a resolution. Although you share your ideas or perspective, even passionately, you also listen and don’t know exactly where you’re going to end up.

As human beings who love control, being in that space of the unknown is what makes us uncomfortable. We need to let go of our own certainty in order to step away from fighting and into constructive conflict.


At the peak of uncertainty during conflict, we usually find ourselves in what Susan calls the “Oh, Sh*t! Moments.” These are the vulnerable, emotionally charged points of a conflict where we aren’t sure if the group is actually going to find a resolution.

In these moments, if you can embrace the vulnerability to concede that maybe your answer, perspective, or experience isn’t the only valid one, you can reach great places of innovation. When you take responsibility for a mistake or admit to your part in a problematic situation, you open up the group’s power dynamics. If we can tolerate that discomfort and continue to keep our minds open to other points of view, we allow for new solutions to emerge.


The problem with living in those vulnerable, tension-filled moments is that it affects our ability to function. When emotions start to rise, we tense up, our heart races, our rational thinking shuts down, and we become defensive. To counter this and bring ourselves back into an open headspace, Susan recommends basic techniques to shift from a stressed-out mind back to a grounded body.

  1. Identify your stress signals. Each person has particular physical and mental indicators that arise when you undergo stress. For example, do you start to obsess in your head, or does your body tense and your stomach turn? The faster you can identify the onset of your stress cues, the faster you can intervene to keep yourself calm.

  2. Return to the body and get out of your head. When you find yourself in stress mode, one of the most powerful antidotes is simply to breathe and feel your feet on the floor. By regrounding into your body, your brain is actually able to function more effectively. This enables you to think more clearly and with a broader perspective.

As a former-skeptic of breathing exercises, I myself can confirm the dramatic power of simply slowing down and calming my breath. This basic technique has increased my ability to cope and thrive when tensions escalate.


Oftentimes, managers find themselves in an awkward position when conflict arises between two members of their team. While some experts suggest having their teammates work it out on their own, that rarely leads to healthy resolution as many times the individuals will avoid having the conversation at all. On the other hand, trying to intervene and play middle-man is extremely time consuming and inhibits the ability of your colleagues to resolve their own issues.

Instead, Susan suggests managers start by confirming the importance of addressing the conflict rather than dismissing it as “their problem”. To help facilitate this, managers can bring the parties together for an efficient and powerful dialogue. This works best for inter-personal conflict. For other types of conflict, Susan advocates for addressing them in group discussions, even if it may take you off track from that meeting’s agenda. By addressing it as a group, it allows for an open discussion in which other team members who aren’t involved in the conflict can also be a resource. They can weigh in and offer perspectives that the two conflicting parties may not have considered.

If we change our perspective on conflict, we can learn to embrace those messy, vulnerable moments rather than shy away from them. As Susan and CrisMarie put it so well in their book, conflict really can be beautiful. While it may be uncomfortable in those peak moments of uncertainty, the benefits of engaging well in conflict dramatically outweigh the discomfort.


This article was based on episode 125 of The Modern Manager podcast. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to The Modern Manager Podcast on iTunes, Google Play, Spotify, iHeart Radio and Stitcher. Get the How to Have Tough Conversations Workbook

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