How to encourage healthy conflict at work: 5 tips

Stop agreeing to disagree, IT leaders. Harness the power of conflict using these five approaches
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One of my least favorite business phrases is "Let’s agree to disagree," and unfortunately, I've heard it a lot. It effectively gives people a free pass when it comes to making decisions. It says, "Let’s take the differences that we have and bury them deep in our emotions, only for them to show themselves at a later date – or in the kitchen straight after this meeting."

I get why people say it. It’s so they can avoid the conflict that they’re expecting will ensue if they continue the conversation. Like most things in the workplace, we’re not taught how to have healthy conflict – yet, it’s absolutely vital for IT departments and organizations, so they can keep projects and services running and to consistently get better at what they do.

Every vibrant IT team or organizational culture has an element of well-behaved conflict.

We all do our best work on the edge of uncomfortable, which means being prepared to stand our ground every now and then and articulately explain why we feel the way we do about an issue. It also means having the courage to speak up, when we’d rather be quiet.

Every vibrant IT team or organizational culture has an element of well-behaved conflict. It creates an environment where it is OK to openly disagree with something, providing that through discussion and debate a resolution is found.

[ Dreading that difficult talk with a team member? Read our related story: How to have tough conversations: 8 tips. ]

Patty McCord, former head of talent at Netflix, said that healthy conflict was critical to the ongoing success of the streaming service. In her book Powerful, she said, "Our Netflix executive team was fierce. We were combative in that beautiful, intellectual way where you argue to tease out someone’s viewpoint because although you don’t agree, you think the other person is really smart so you want to understand why they think what they think."

"Beautiful, intellectual way." We don’t tend to think of challenging discussions in this way. We tend to think of them as arguments, because, well, that’s what most of them turn into. And as Seth Godin says, "Lazy is having an argument rather than a thoughtful conversation."

So how do you create an IT culture where healthy conflict doesn’t turn into an argument? Here are five things you can do:

1. Keep your emotions in check

The ability to be emotionally intelligent throughout a conflict is critical, as you need to be good at identifying the triggers that may lead you away from being the best version of yourself. As soon as you feel anger or annoyance, you need to manage the emotions you feel and stay focused on the solution you're presenting. As a CIO or senior manager, everyone else looks to you to model the behaviors expected of others.

2. Prepare well for the discussion

You should take the time to prepare for the questions you may be asked and practice your answers to them. Your answers should be focused on the value of your idea – rather than why you think it’s the best thing to do.

3. Practice active empathetic listening

By actively listening to the views of another person and understanding their emotions, you get a much better idea of their intentions. Throughout this process, you should ask questions to ensure that you understand their viewpoint fully before offering an alternate view. 

[ Working on your soft skills? Read also: Emotional intelligence test: Do your empathy skills need work? ]

4. Present your viewpoint and look for common ground

Stay focused on the issue and the value your solution offers, don’t waffle, and be respectful of the thoughts and views of others. Don’t create right/wrong divisions and don’t allow yourself to be interrupted.

5. Keep debating until a solution is found that all parties can support

Don’t ever "agree to disagree" or talk candidly about why your solution was better. The time for you to make your point is at the time of the debate – never later.

Healthy conflict is a must if you’re to create an IT environment that continually challenges the status quo and looks for better ways to do things. What’s worked for you?

[ Red Hat CEO Jim Whitehurst says managers must get comfortable with confrontation in the age of agile. Read our related article: 4 factors to rethink when leading innovation. ]

Colin D. Ellis is a culture change expert, an award-winning international speaker and a best-selling author. His latest book, "Culture Fix: How to Create a Great Place to Work" (Wiley), has seen him travel all over the world to help IT departments transform the way they work.


Engaging in conflict is always hard and you can tell which teams are really wired for results when you see them arguing from different sides, but for the same vision. There are a couple assessments that can help your team get better at conflict. One is Everything DiSC Productive Conflict, the other is based on Patrick Lencioni's work and is The Five Behaviors of a Cohesive Team. I found that both of these helped our team to discuss our rules for engagement and to commit to having the difficult conversions. And to encouraging those of us who tend to withdraw to speak instead.