How You Can Use Conflict to Build a Better Team

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Psychologist and business strategist Liane Davey discusses different ways for teams to nurture healthy conflict.

It sounds like an oxymoron, but psychologist and business strategist Liane Davey insists there is such a thing as healthy conflict at work. Fighting at work doesn’t have to be destructive or end in someone going home with a figurative black eye. Instead, office tensions can be a starting point for respectful dialogue, problem-solving and behavioral change that helps teams move closer toward their goals.

“I always have to tell people that tension and conflict isn’t the antithesis of teamwork. It’s the purpose of it,” she said in an interview with the Knowledge@Wharton radio show on SiriusXM. (Listen to the podcast at the top of this page.) In her new book, The Good Fight: Use Productive Conflict to Get Your Team and Organization Back on Track, Davey offers tools for turning office squabbles into productive sessions.

An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

Knowledge@Wharton: Some people may think that the title of your book means you actually want conflict in the office. How do you respond to that interpretation?

Liane Davey: What I would tell them is that you have conflict in the office because organizations create conflict. We have to make trade-offs between different priorities or when we have to allocate workload or decide who gets a promotion, so there is conflict there. The question is whether it’s above board and healthy and in a way you can get through it, or whether it’s passive-aggressive and kind of burning like a root fire. It’s there. The question is, are you dealing with it effectively?

Knowledge@Wharton: How do you qualify healthy conflict at work?

Davey: I look at it at three levels. At the organization level, it’s a good fight if it helps you get through it and get to an outcome that’s good for the business. At the level of the team, it’s a good fight if it strengthens trust among the team members, instead of eroding it. And then personally, it’s a good fight if, at the end of the day, you go home and look yourself in the mirror, and you’re proud of yourself. Those things make a good fight.

Knowledge@Wharton: Do you think there are components of being involved in healthy conflict at work that can carry over to your personal life?

Davey: Yes. You see those car commercials where in fine print it says, “Don’t try this at home.” I put a chapter at the end of this book called, “Try This at Home.” These things all work really, really well.

I was helping a bunch of insurance executives with how to have a better fight with each other, and one of them needed a lot of help. At the end, he said, “I guess that’s why I’m divorced.” We kind of laughed uncomfortably because the answer is, “Yes, it probably is.”

Knowledge@Wharton: We’re in a time when companies are emphasizing teams and looking at the mix of employees within those teams. Can this book help with that?

Davey: We see some organizations that put teams together to get healthy tension and to make the business decisions better. But we see others trying to put teams together to keep things harmonious because they’re over-enamored with this idea of harmony and engagement.

I would say people are being more deliberate about setting up the teams. The thing I’m worried about are the ones who are setting up the teams to create a bunch of bobbleheads that all kind of go along with one another. That’s really dangerous.

“The books that are now selling … are based on this false sense that our workplaces can be uniformly happy.”

If you go to one of those airport bookstores and look at all the book titles, you see that the most common word in the titles is “happiness.” The books that are now selling around the workplace are based on this false sense that our workplaces can be uniformly happy.

We’re beyond our concerns about the yes-man, and we’re into this time where suddenly ‘conflict’ is a dirty word. That’s a big concern for a lot of businesses. I always have to tell people that tension and conflict isn’t the antithesis of teamwork. It’s the purpose of it.

Knowledge@Wharton: But sometimes when you have conflict and can’t clear the air, you can’t move on. And that can affect the bottom line of the company.

Davey: Yes, absolutely. If you have unhealthy conflict, it’s going to really stifle innovation because people are going to stay in their silos where it’s safe, right? I’m not going to expose my ideas and myself to criticism. You lose a lot of innovation. The other thing you lose is if people begin to fear conflict and think it’s an unhealthy thing, they don’t spot the risks in your plans or assumptions in your plans.

You can find your organization starts to build up some concerns and risks because you aren’t good at conflict. So yes, if you’ve had unhealthy conflict, you put yourself at significant risk because then people just avoid all conflict, and you lose the good with the bad.

Knowledge@Wharton: You say one reason we end up with issues in the workplace is that we are conflict-averse. Can you explain what you mean?

Davey: As humans, we’re biologically wired to try to get along with the people in our ‘in’ group, so you didn’t get voted out of the cave and eaten by the saber-toothed tiger. That made a lot of sense. We’re already born slightly conflict-averse.

But then we’re socialized by the grandma who says, “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” And we’re told by our teachers to mind our own business. There are just all these messages that come through all the time that make us conflict-averse and don’t help us to understand that conflict is a natural part of healthy relationships.

If you think of the #MeToo movement and things like that, conflict is also a really important defense against unhealthy relationships. If you don’t know how to advocate, if you don’t realize that some things are worth fighting for, then you put everybody at risk.

Knowledge@Wharton: Does this change when you’re talking about dealing with a manager or your boss?

Davey: A little bit. There are some tricks to speaking truth to power. One would be to make sure you tie your point to something that matters for the business, so it’s not just that I’m cranky and don’t like this. It’s, “Here’s what we’re trying to achieve this quarter and here’s how I’m not going to be able to achieve that for our customers or for the expense line if it continues this way.” Tying it more to the business performance is key with a boss.

Another thing that’s key with a boss is to use language that’s more questioning and more open. Don’t go in making definitive statements and standing in your power poses when you’re talking with your boss. Instead, you want to say, “What if” or “Would it be possible if?” Use questions so that there’s room for you to pivot if the boss reacts poorly.

“Tension and conflict isn’t the antithesis of teamwork. It’s the purpose of it.”

Those kinds of things are little techniques that I go into in the book about how to adapt slightly. But in general, it’s the same kind of thing. You want to make sure you’re listening to the pressures on your boss and what they’re trying to communicate with you, that you’re really validating and showing them that you’re hearing them, that you get it. Those sorts of things are important in any conflict. It just has a little twist of being a little bit more strategic when you’re speaking truth to power.

Essentially, if you’re in a fight with your boss, it’s because you’re not meeting her needs at some level. She’s feeling a ton of pressure to deliver the results or whatever, and something in it makes her feel like you’re not hearing her, you’re not delivering for her, you’re not reliable, you’re not capable. That’s what creates a conflict with your boss. It’s still very human. It’s still your boss feeling vulnerable because of your performance.

The problem in most workplace conflict is that we go on and on fighting about the facts, and conflict in the workplace is never about facts. If it was just about facts, we’d be problem-solving. It’s about our emotions, but more importantly, it’s about what we value and how we experience things, what matters to us.

If you can realize your boss is human, as vulnerable as you, as worried as you, then you’d realize that how you have conflict with your boss needs to take into account how they’re experiencing the situation just as much as what the right answer is.

Knowledge@Wharton: Are there times where it’s probably not good to deal with the conflict — like maybe you should take some time away and let the situation calm down? Or can you work through almost every situation?

Davey: You can work through many more of them than you think. We try and back away or postpone a lot of those things because we fear that things are going to get too emotional. I would say our fear of [displaying] emotions in the workplace is too high.

Again, go back to this idea that we’re actually humans in the workplace, so emotions are going to happen. If you fear you’re going to get upset or angry or those sorts of things, you may want to take a break for a few minutes. But even if a few tears start to roll down your face, what you can do is say, “Look, you can see how important this is to me.”

Frame it as, “This is because I’m all in. This is because I’m engaged.” Or even if I start pounding the table and getting angry, it’s a chance to say, “I get carried away with this because it matters so much to me, because I’m so invested.”

Even if there are emotions that come to the fore, it’s better to work through them and get to the other side. If, on the other hand, tears start to well in your eyes and you leave the room, then you have that awkward, horrible moment where you have to come back later and be like, “Sorry.” Better to just say in the moment, “Yep, I’m emotional because this matters and I’m all in.” Even this risk that we’ll get emotional is not a reason to avoid a conflict.

Knowledge@Wharton: What about a situation where you would have two people with very different priorities in the workplace and a level of conflict because of that?

Davey: If we go back to this idea that conflict and tension are a feature, not a bug, I would say that’s a good thing. If you’re sitting at that table and you can see that [two colleagues are] pulling on either ends of a rope, it’s a great situation where you can stop minding your own business and actually say, “Hey, what I’m hearing here is you’re coming at this from the sales perspective, which is, ‘Let’s get as much out the door in this month as we possibly can.’”

[To the other person, you say,] “‘You’re coming at it from the supply chain perspective, and you’re worried about making sure we don’t have to leave a bunch of stuff in the warehouse.’ Those things both seem really valid. What are our options for getting the right amount of stuff out the door without backlogging stuff in the inventory?”

“Conflict is a natural part of healthy relationships.”

If you’re somebody watching those kinds of tensions, what’s happening is the two people stuck in that tug-of-war are interpreting it as friction between them as people. Like, “You’re a jerk! What do you mean you won’t let me hit my sales numbers?” If you can frame it in a way that says, “Look, both of these things are true and both are important. How are we going to solve for this?”

Instead of a tug-of-war dynamic, you create this triangle where there’s a little bit more space to say, “Oh, this isn’t a fight. These are two tensions. The sales and operations tensions will be there until the end of time, and it better be there. It’s good for our businesses.”

You can do a lot of good when there’s a fight on your team that’s seeming a bit like those old Miller Lite ads, where you’re fighting about whether it ‘tastes great’ or it’s ‘less filling.’ You just say, ‘Hang on, guys. It can be both at the same time. What do we do with that?’

Knowledge@Wharton: How do you resolve conflict if you are the new person in the office and not well-established yet, or if your conflict is with that new person?

Davey: New people get that free pass for a while to ask those awesome, naive questions, which aren’t always quite so naïve and can be really helpful. Because when you come in as a new person, you have that moment where you can be curious, where you don’t know, where you don’t know the baggage, you haven’t been in on the gossip yet.

I would encourage people who are new to stick to great questions, as opposed to making statements. Nobody likes that guy who talks about his past job and tells you all the time about how it was so much better. As a new person, you’re going to use questions to draw people’s attention to different spots.

As the person who is on-boarding a new person, help them understand some of those dynamics, what I call the hidden organization chart. ‘This is what it says on the chart, but here’s who you really need to know. Here are some of the stakeholders. Here are the folks who seem scary, but they’re not. Go make friends with them. Here are the people that don’t seem scary, but they are. Here’s how to get on the right side of them.’ Those kinds of things can be really helpful to the new person to navigate some of those things.

Knowledge@Wharton: How is the divisive discourse that’s been part of our culture lately playing into the conflict-resolution dynamic at the office?

Davey: We are in this very unpleasant time where we’re not actually having conflict, we’re staying in our own echo chambers, telling ourselves how smart we are and how right we are, but we’re not engaging with others. There’s no connection, no line of communication between different camps. If that’s what’s going on in your Facebook feed, if that’s what’s happening when you’re tailgating, it just becomes natural that that carries over to the office. We’re pulling apart and just staying with the people who think like we do, and that’s an incredibly negative thing.

“Conflict in the workplace is never about facts. If it was just about facts, we’d be problem-solving. It’s about our emotions.”

It’s one thing for the country. It’s another thing if it’s going to stall your productivity or your growth as a company and make it a miserable place to go to work every day. So, fight that urge, resist the urge to stay only with people who think like you do. Find places to seek out the people who think differently, and try to learn what makes them think differently. How is their perspective different than mine? How is the value they’re adding different than mine? Is the tension they’re putting on my ideas healthy and good and needed, if we’re going to come to the best answer?

Knowledge@Wharton: There are a couple of tools that you suggest in the book, including the U Tool. What is that?

Davey: The U Tool is about neutralizing conflict before it even happens. So much of our work in organizations on conflict has been about training people how to deal with a conflict in the moment. We have all these difficult and fierce conversation skills, but we’re not using them because we don’t like conflict, and we have all those voices in our head from our grandmother telling us that we shouldn’t.

The U Tool helps you neutralize and avoid conflicts in the first place. It comes on this basic idea that the No. 1 reason we get into conflict is because we disappoint one another. That’s because we didn’t understand the expectation up front. The busier managers get and the more frenetic our workplaces become, the more we shortchange those conversations up front.

The U Tool is this great tool you can use with your team, and I provide all the instructions in the book about how to take your team through it to clarify expectations. ‘Here’s what I need to give to you to set you up for success. Here’s what good work looks like. Here’s what we expect a manager to add in reviewing work. Here’s the stuff we need to escalate, and we need to have that no-surprises idea for management.’ It takes you through this whole process so that if you know what’s expected of you, it’s much less likely anybody’s going to disappoint one another. Then it’s much less likely that we’re going to get into conflict.

Knowledge@Wharton: Another one is called the Tarp. What’s that?

Davey: The Tarp is reframing that tug-of-war. It’s the tool that goes with this idea that tension is a feature, not a bug. It’s a tool and a process that allows you to go right around the table defining how each person is pulling on a different rope — what that looks like in terms of what they’re focused on and who their stakeholders are — and it allows you to normalize conflict.

“Even this risk that we’ll get emotional is not a reason to avoid a conflict.”

Instead of me thinking that everyone else is a jerk and they’re trying to get me down, I now understand that they’re living up to their obligation, and that’s the tension they’re going to put on every conversation. As soon as we’ve framed this, we normalize it as, “Oh, this is productive and healthy tension,” instead of interpersonal friction. Then we get much more comfortable having the good fight.

Knowledge@Wharton: You talk at the end of the book about habits, including humor and code words. Can you tell us more?

Davey:  I love code words. I had a CEO who was a bit of a micromanager and loved to use the Russell Crowe film Gladiator at all his leadership retreats. The scene where Russell Crowe rides down off the hill and jumps off his horse and starts chopping off people’s heads — this was just such a perfect metaphor for how he, as the leader, comes down off the ridge all the time and starts micromanaging.

One day months later, he was into this situation, and he was micromanaging a marketing manager about four layers below him in the organization. One of his teammates leans over and says, “Get back on the horse,” which is just a funny way of saying, “Dude, you’re micromanaging.”

But when you use humor and code words, the reaction was that he laughed, he smiled. Then he was able to just say, “You know what? You know more about this than me. I trust you.” When we can have funny language or code words with one another, it defuses the emotion around these sorts of things and allows us to move through it with a smile on our face, instead of getting angry or annoyed or feeling hurt.

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