A group of professionals arguing in a conference room

Managing Polarizing Conversations & Conflicts in the Workplace

The country may be divided, but our companies don’t have to be. Here are some approaches to dealing with disputes and creating team alignment.

Polarization is pretty high in the US these days, with fierce debates over political and social issues raging amid heated elections. These entrenched divides are a cautionary lesson for businesses: they can prevent constructive progress on issues that all sides care about. In short, while some disagreement is necessary and valuable, too much of it — in the wrong ways — can be a bad thing.

Entrepreneurs can’t do much about political gridlock in Congress or whatever crazy memes your friends and relatives post on Facebook. But we can influence and harmonize our companies, creating workplaces where conflict is healthy, and people can vigorously disagree but still move forward together.

Here’s a look at conflict in the workplace and some strategies for keeping everyone on the same page.

The lowdown on workplace conflict and dysfunction

Harvard professors Julia A. Minson and Francesca Gino studied disagreements at work and found they’re a significant and common problem:

In a 2021 survey we found that conflict is an inescapable part of work life for employees at all levels. Eighty-nine percent of the 486 U.S. respondents from a wide range of companies and industries reported experiencing it at work to some degree. They spend about 3.5 hours a week, on average, dealing with it.

Over three hours a week dealing with disputes is bad enough; the harder-to-measure follow-on effects of lost productivity, engagement, and job satisfaction can be even worse. 

Minson’s and Gino’s survey also found that while 96% of respondents who were “trained or coached in handling workplace conflict” say it helped them, only 39% received this guidance. One of these numbers is troubling, but the other is an opportunity — we can handle polarization if we just know how to approach and resolve disputes.

Workplace disagreements can take many forms. Some of these issues stem from personality conflicts, whereas many others revolve around differences in running the business. For example, polarizing conversations may arise among leadership team members who disagree about the company’s direction, remote vs. in-person schedules, how new hires are treated vs. existing employees, or appropriate compensation and bonuses. 

The crucial takeaway is that all of those work-related disagreements are fair game. Many issues are legitimate business concerns, and debating them can be very healthy and productive if it’s done right and leads to solutions that propel the company forward.

But how can we keep disputes from turning into fights and harness different perspectives into positive action?

It’s all about framing!

Let’s consider what’s wrong with the dysfunctional fights in other aspects of our society. Cable news pundits, dodgy politicians, or angry online commenters approach debates with the ‘correct’ answer already decided, and they tend to assume bad faith from anyone who disagrees with them. In short, they’re coming to the conversation with an intent to win, whatever that means. (Which is ironic, given that no one ever really does.)

Workplace debates essentially need to take the opposite approach, and the first step to achieving this goal is recognizing their worth. Diversity of perspectives, experiences, and people is incredibly valuable for companies, especially among leadership teams, and so is healthy conflict.

Second, team alignment and constructive conflict must be based in mutual respect, a paradigm that flows from an organization’s culture and values. Team members who respect each other don’t tend to assume the worst about ideas or the people proposing them, no matter how much they disagree. 

Finally, we must approach debates and tough conversations in a positive way. Individuals who address something with the right frame of mind aren’t combatants; they’re collaborators. Both parties must come to the table with good intent — not to declare their superior intelligence or righteousness over an opponent. How can we solve this together? And what is best for the business?

The book Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High advocates a “shared learning” approach through a pretty good food metaphor. Basically, someone can bring their carrots, and I can bring my potatoes — but the objective is to make soup. So, let’s not talk about individual ingredients to the exclusion of the real goal. Instead, let’s put it all in the bowl and create the best possible outcome.

There are also some very powerful tools that help us consciously achieve a collaborative and empathetic mindset rather than a competitive one: 

  • The Empowerment Triangle reframes each individual’s role in a conflict from negative to constructive: Challengers, Creators, and Coaches vs. Persecutors, Victims, and Rescuers.
  • The Entrepreneurial Operating System® uses the IDS™ framework to identify, discuss, and solve issues constructively. By implementing a routine, structured process that deliberately tackles problems that often lead to disagreements and tough conversations, IDS destigmatizes them and puts everyone on a collaborative path. 

Keep polarization out of the workplace

No one wants their company to run like a Reddit thread or the YouTube comments section. But tough conversations and heated disagreements can go south, get personal, and undermine team alignment if leaders don’t take conscious steps to avoid dysfunction and address issues constructively. 

It’s why “Team by Design” includes and hinges on those last two words — and why The Profit Recipe offers our Five Behavior Workshop to help businesses get started on a solution:

We can disagree and have difficult conversations without inertia or drama and come together to enact solutions. Sometimes, this means meeting in the middle — creating plan C from approaches A and B. In other cases, it involves one person giving up more of their initial position than they’d like, followed by committing to executing the new plan and supporting the team. 

Regardless, successfully leveraging differences relies on always approaching them in good faith and with respect, ensuring everyone has a voice, and reframing them with constructive goals. Building consensus and taking action are the framework — not ego or ‘winning.’ 

And whatever solution seems best for the business is the right one.

Empower your Leadership Team and improve efficiency, increase value, and foster collaboration to get better results. A professional Facilitator can ensure that all of your members are on the same page, so you can kick your business up a notch. Connect with The Profit Recipe to Achieve Traction.