Workplace culture: 4 ways to foster healthy conflict

Conflict doesn’t have to be adversarial. Consider these expert tips to navigate differences and encourage positive, productive collaboration
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Believe it or not, disagreeing with your colleagues can be a good thing.

Especially as CIOs and IT departments begin to rethink the way they interact with IT and business, the idea that conflict is unproductive and detrimental to workplace culture – and the notion that organizations should avoid conflict entirely – is based on a false premise: that all conflicts are unhealthy and unproductive.

That claim falls flat when we broaden our perspective on what the term “conflict” encompasses.

Healthy conflict allows room for treating people with respect, listening to others’ ideas, and considering those ideas during collaborative, iterative, and agile processes. Maintaining a diversity of thought and experience is crucial to building a healthy, fair, and inclusive company culture.

How to foster healthy conflict in the workplace

Here’s how IT leaders and technologists have traditionally handled conflict – and four ways to build a strong culture that fosters healthy conflicts and more productive ideation and solutioning processes.

1. Collaboratively set expectations between IT and the business

A recurring theme with IT leaders is an “us vs. them” mentality regarding the rest of the organization – specifically business counterparts. It can happen when either party fails to understand the value that the other provides.

[ Also read Hybrid work: 4 ways to strengthen relationships. ]

For example, IT teams often work in silos. At the same time, business leadership might spin up shadow IT teams – which lack explicit IT department approval and detract from the enterprise IT strategy – to get around what they see as hurdles. This is a recipe for redundant labor and organizational dysfunction.

Contributing to the conflict is the fact that many companies consider IT a cost center and an internal service provider to the business and its customers. That sets the stage for a transactional dynamic rather than a collaborative one.

To reframe that relationship, work with stakeholders to set expectations and define what success looks like from the beginning – whether it be with leadership, internal employees, third-party vendors, or customers.

Start by outlining and defining product goals – requirements gathering, key design decisions, what constitutes a finished product, training preparation, and ongoing support – so that the business understands what the work entails. IT leaders can then establish points where bringing key business stakeholders into the process will enable the most productive outcomes.

2. Seek continuous feedback instead of avoiding conflict

IT teams and leaders should open an ongoing dialogue with the business and other stakeholders. That means being willing to receive feedback from multiple constituencies during different project stages rather than simply handing over a “finished” product as a protective measure. While critiques may introduce conflict and discomfort, they can help drive the relationship between IT and the business forward and enhance the products and services that IT is providing.

The agile methodology for project management, which emphasizes speed and constant iteration, embodies this approach. As part of regular planning and retrospectives, agile methods suggest that team members highlight three areas for improvement based on their previous “sprint,” a short period wherein a development team works to meet particular milestones.

Encourage everyone to broaden their purview and grapple with other areas of improvement head-on – acknowledging that no single individual 'owns' the challenges they face.

Some team members may be tempted to flag their work for improvement to avoid the conflict of criticizing others. Instead, encourage everyone to broaden their purview and grapple with other areas of improvement head-on – acknowledging that no single individual “owns” the challenges they face. Continuously improving and delivering the best IT products and services is a team effort.

3. Change how feedback is delivered to avoid finger-pointing

Leaders in an unhealthy company culture often put people on the spot for their mistakes. This is natural (if adversarial): People tend to focus on individuals since they are tangible and often at the center of your attention, whereas organizational challenges are abstract and invisible in a meeting or conversation.

Instead, stress the difference between individuals and problems, delivering feedback cordially and professionally without assigning blame. It’s more complicated than it sounds – but it’s a skill that can be learned. As a leader, you may need training and upskilling, especially if you plan on working with product teams that could persist for years.

Give your employees ample lead time to not only offer up critique but also identify potential solutions. This ensures that feedback is not couched in negativity or a personal attack – this, in turn, spurs healthy conflict and practical recommendations for improvement.

[ Related read: How the Kaizen mindset fosters smart contrarians on your IT team ]

4. Create a culture of open communication and collaboration

When it comes to significant roadblocks that may not have a clear resolution – such as critical design decisions or budget trade-offs – CIOs often lean on conflict-reducing measures that can spur more wariness and distrust among employees. Some of these tactics include blind votes on crucial IT issues or decisions made by executives behind closed doors.

Discussing decisions openly is a better way to build trust and strong working relationships. This approach invites an opportunity for team members to better understand the decision-making process and why key decisions were made. IT leaders, team members, and potentially even employees from other areas of the business can discuss why they support one option versus the other, what value levers they might pull to help a project meet its goals, and which option aligns best with the company’s strategy and key performance indicators (KPIs).

Also, consider scheduling stand-up meetings based on modeled leader behavior where team members talk about their shortcomings over the previous month – including why they fell short and what they would have done better. Leaders typically kick off these conversations, admitting from the outset that they aren’t perfect, which can inspire others to open up about their own opportunities for improvement.

There is a difference between animosity and conflict. A healthy workplace culture invites productive conflict and iterative improvement. Conflict enables CIOs and their team members to quickly identify value creation levers and operate more effectively within an agile or digital process model.

When collaborators assume good intent in others and embrace conflict as a way to solve their most challenging problems, they are more likely to drive better business results, lower operating costs, and increase productivity.

[ Want more expert insights on leadership, strategy, career development, and more? Download the Ebook: 37 award-winning CIOs share essential IT career advice. ]

Eric Freshour is Managing Director, People & Productivity, Chicago at West Monroe.