Productive Conflict at Work: Simple Guidelines to Keep it Positive

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Follow these guidelines for productive conflict at work to get the benefit without the battle.

You know conflict at work can be productive for many reasons. But do you know how to engage in and manage conflict in a way that stays positive, productive, and valuable to your team?

These guidelines help you keep it respectful and productive, so you get the positive results instead of the pain that conflict can often result in.

The Cost of Conflict Avoidance

We’ve talked about the ways productive conflict can be valuable in the workplace. If you need to convince anyone, send them to this article that outlines how it’s helpful for your organization. 

And if you’re not convinced that nurturing productive, healthy conflict is good, consider the price of avoiding conflict. 

Simmering feuds and low morale

If there’s conflict on or across teams that’s not addressed, it can grow and infect the team – and team morale – over time. One unhappy employee can negatively impact other team members.

More than once I’ve seen one disgruntled employee spend a large amount of energy complaining to others about work-related issues.  

Over time it began to negatively impact team morale or project success.

Unidentified risks

If teams are unwilling to bring up unpleasant situations or seek input to potential problems, there’s more likelihood of not identifying critical risks early enough to manage them effectively. 


If teams are not willing to approach customers who may have negative input about products and solutions, they risk missing valuable feedback. This can negatively impact successful project implementation.

Guidelines for Productive Conflict

Sometimes it’s important to have uncomfortable conversations. It’s critical to know how to do it productively.
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We’ve established that conflict can be valuable. It helps people better understand one another and move to productive discussions and solutions. 

Use these guidelines when having challenging discussions to help the team keep it respectful and productive.  

1.     Foster an environment that values productive conflict.

Share the ways that productive conflict can be valuable to the team. Ensure they know that respectful disagreement and debate can lead to better outcomes, more creative solutions, and healthier teams.  

2.     Establish Ground Rules

When specifically working through conflict as a team or in a group, ensure the team has agreed to common ground rules. These may vary depending on the group. It’s important that everyone is clear on what these ground rules are, and agrees to follow them. Some common examples of ground rules are as follows:

  • It’s okay to disagree. 
  • Be honest, yet respectful. No personal attacks. 
  • Remaining quiet means you agree, or that you don’t feel strongly enough against the point to voice disagreement. 
  • Don’t remain quiet at the table and then express disagreement and frustration to others when you leave the room. 
  • Everyone participates. 
  • Sharing ideas and engaging in healthy debate is encouraged. 

Establishing agreed-upon ground rules for respectful communication ensures disagreement or conflict remains civil and productive.

3.     Clearly identify priorities.

If your team is discussing project issues that need to be resolved, and there’s disagreement on how to proceed, ensure everyone understands what the priorities are.

For example, it may be more important to stay within a rigid budget than to meet a desired target date. Or the most important criteria may be to have a specific piece of scope delivered by a hard deadline, even at the expense of something else.

This helps the team focus their energy on the most important areas.

4.     Be Willing to have tough conversations

Don’t completely shy away from challenging discussions. Be willing to step into those conversations and explore options and ideas that can move the team forward. 

5.     Ask challenging questions

In order to get the team to move into potentially uncomfortable discussions, you may need to prompt them with uncomfortable questions.

If you need to discover risks or uncover potential problems, imagine you’re trying to find out what could go wrong. Think of problem scenarios to challenge the group.

Asking questions and challenging the “happy path” can force others to consider what they might be missing. You can ask questions like, “Is there something we’re not thinking of or not considering?” This is good for identifying risks and planning for problems. 

6.     Bounce your ideas off others beforehand, if needed. 

If you need to bounce your ideas off teammates before a tough conversation or productive conflict, do so. It can help you formulate your ideas better going into the discussion. It can give you the confidence needed to speak up. And it can help you prepare for challenges you might be met with during the meeting.

Before going into a difficult conversation, it can be helpful to bounce your ideas off a friendly co-worker. This can help you organize your thoughts, give you confidence, and prepare for unexpected challenges.”

7.     Use assertive communication skills, such as using “I” statements

Using assertive communication techniques enable you to speak openly and honestly, yet with respect for others. For example, “I statements” allow you to own your feelings without blaming others, which can shut down or hinder productive discussion. 

Helpful article: 20 Easy-to-Use Assertive Communication Skills for Confidence and Respect

8.     Identify common goals. 

Even though there’s disagreement, recognize that you’re likely working toward some common goals.

Whether it’s that you all want the project to succeed, you’re all working toward the same quality standards, or you have some other shared goals, take the time to recognize there’s common ground and common goals.  

Remembering common goals can help teams engage in conflict in more respectful and productive ways.

9.     Identify areas of agreement or disagreement. 

You likely may agree with some of what the other person believes. And then there will be parts that you disagree with.

Instead of simply assuming you’re in full disagreement on your entire argument, understand there may be parts you agree on.

Identify the parts of the argument you’re both aligned on. This makes it easier to identify and isolate the parts where the disagreement lies. You can then focus your attention there.

10.     Listen.

Many people spend the time that they’re not talking simply thinking about what they’re going to say next. Instead, when someone else is sharing a contradictory opinion, really listen to what they’re saying. This will help foster a deeper understanding of their point of view. 

11.     Don’t interrupt.

Give the other person time to complete their thoughts without talking over them or cutting them off, which can cause frustration and anger. 

12.     Paraphrase or summarize contradictory points.

In addition to listening to the words the other person is saying, paraphrase what they’re saying. This ensures you understand correctly. It also helps the other person feel heard, and less likely feel the need to argue to get their point across. 

13.     Don’t speak in absolutes.

Speaking in absolutes doesn’t leave room for any other possible behaviour, and this can put others on the defensive. It may also discredit your argument.

For example, don’t say “management always sets the deadlines without asking for our input.” Instead, be as accurate as possible in what you say and what your concerns are. 

14.     Use emotional intelligence to monitor the room. 

Your emotional intelligence will be extremely valuable in situations when teams are challenging one another and discussing sensitive topics.

Watch the room, people’s body language, the way they react, or if people resist engaging in the debate. It helps you stay in touch with how others in the room may be reacting to what’s being said – or even not said. 

Read this: How to Develop Emotionally Intelligent Leadership Skills

15.     Nurture relationships

Don’t only focus on heavy, conflict-focused topics. It’s important for teams to have fun, too.

And in order to have the foundation of trust and rapport needed for productive conflict, you’ve got to invest some time building it.

If possible, find ways to share positive experiences to build a positive foundation for strong working relationships. Lunches together, or even a fun icebreaker before a meeting, can help.

You’ll find great icebreaker ideas here: 15 Easy Team Building Icebreakers for Meetings

What to Watch Out For

It can be hard to manage groups through challenging discussions – and some more than others. There are a few things that can impede progress. Watch out for these behaviors to keep the group moving forward productively:

·       Passive-aggressive behavior. 

When you recognize that someone is upset, yet not willing to communicate openly and respectfully, find a way to discover what’s at the root of their anger.

Depending on the situation, group dynamics, or your relationship, you may be able to ask them during a group discussion why they’re upset. Or you may need to have a more private conversation. 

·       Those who wish to dominate the discussion. 

There are often people who take over the conversation and do most of the talking. It’s important that everyone get a chance to share, give input, and feel heard.

When this happens, point out that others haven’t had the chance to contribute yet and ask that others be given the opportunity to share their thoughts. 

·       Sidetracking the Topic

Sometimes participants can take the discussion down a path that’s unproductive. Quickly point out that while the topic may be important, it’s not relevant to the discussion. Document the topic in the “parking lot” list of items to follow up on later. And then honor your commitment to revisit the topic at a later time. 

·       Escalating Emotions

This is another reason why emotional intelligence is important. You need to be aware when tensions are raised too high and help manage the energy in the room. Recognizing and labeling people’s emotions can let them know that they’ve been heard and help to de-escalate tensions.  


It can take courage to engage in productive conflict. Establishing guidelines, nurturing a culture of openness and respect, and valuing different opinions are vital elements in creating an environment in which people are willing to do so.

And once you’ve gotten accustomed to it, your team members may even come to enjoy a good-natured debate. 

For even more information on how to have productive and valuable meetings, purchase a copy of my book, Bad Meetings Happen to Good People: How to Run Meetings That Are Effective, Focused, and Produce Results.

You’ll get a step-by-step guide on how to have the most valuable meetings possible. Plus you’ll get information on how to handle common challenges and be ready for anything.

You’ll be known as a trusted leader who can handle even the most challenging meetings!


  1. Gaurav October 9, 2019
    • Leigh Espy October 9, 2019

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