Conflicts are healthy

Did the title of this section, set off alarm bells in your head? Maybe it depends on your experience with conflicts.

In the early days of my career, I thought conflicts were unhealthy and I used to get into conflicts a lot because as an engineer, I had my opinion on solving a problem a certain way. And obviously my way was the best way because I had done my reading and compared other solutions and made my decision based on that research. However, there were many other alternative solutions that I hadn’t considered, simply because I wasn’t aware of them. But as an inexperienced, young engineer who was concerned about proving his point, I was blind to the better alternatives!

Now imagine me going and presenting my opinion to others thinking my way is absolutely amazing and suddenly another engineer, who seem to have solved a similar problem in the past disagreed with my choice by just saying, that’s not a good solution without telling me that there was a better alternative and that they had used that better alternative before with great success and yielded better results.

That conversation could easily escalate into a conflict. Because in my tiny head, what I have heard is “Your solution is bad. Your research is awful. You don’t know what you are doing”. Bear in mind that none of these words were said by the engineer with the opposing view but my head filled all the words for me and made me defensive! Hence, instead of focussing on the solution, I start to focus on proving my opinion is right. That’s the beginning of a conflict.

Why does this happen

Conflicts often arise when there is a difference in opinion. The difference in opinion itself isn’t the problem though. It is how the opposing views are discussed that creates a conflict. Every person holds their opinion but if they hold on to these too strongly, they refuse to listen to the alternatives.

Making it personal

A point of view can become personal even if the view isn’t really about the person. This is because the person with the view arrived at a conclusion after having spent time and effort, figuring it out themselves, thus unintentionally making the view personal - based on their experience thus far. The fact that they chose that view, makes them own that view. A bit like the choice of a political party, choice of buying a car, a house, a gadget etc.

Once things get personal, then a lot of arguing is about pleasing the ego. By questioning one’s belief, you are bound to hurt their ego. Disproving the foundations of one’s belief would make one feel they were wrong, which in a public forum many may find very difficult to admit. This is reluctance to admit that their views could be wrong, is what causes wars and riots, so we all have seen this in action in various aspects of life.

Personality clashes

Humans are complex creatures, everyone looks, talks and behaves differently. A person’s cultural upbringing will influence how they handle a difficult question, whether they are happy to confront someone with opposing views, how they speak with or without sarcasm, even the tone of their language, the voice modulation etc.

This can lead to a variety of results when they work with someone from a different cultural background. It is almost a breeding ground for conflicts. In certain cultures, disapproval is shown using a direct commanding tone. In other cultures, the emphasis is on disagreeing respectfully and hence using a tone of seeking permission to disagree. This can cause two individuals from either of these cultures to misunderstand their intentions.

Resolving a conflict

As a leader, you might think it is your responsibility to resolve the conflict. After all, you are accountable for the team. Hold your horses there. You are not a nanny or a child minder.

As a leader it is your responsibility to create an empowered environment where team members can disagree respectfully and discuss their opinions. You can provide them with tools to do so. But you don’t have to pick sides or be the referee. You let your team of adults to work it out, provide each side the pros and cons of their opinions and encourage opportunities of discussion but you are not resolving the conflict for anyone.

However, it is important that you understand that there is a conflict and keep an eye on it to facilitate a way forward.

You might be thinking, what do I do then?

Recognise the problem

It is important to acknowledge the conflict as a problem and accept and highlight that opposing views are healthy and they bring value to the team and remind the team of the real problem at hand and what is at stake.

Take every opportunity to highlight the importance of diversity of thought and the importance of disagreeing and committing to a view if that’s the solution that works best for the organisation.

As a leader or manager of the team, explore the following and ensure you understand it well:

  1. Why the conflict happened?
  2. What are the different views in question?
  3. How many are on either side?
  4. What does the outcome of going with each of the views mean for the organisation?
  5. What’s best for the organisation and the team in the long term?

Coaching those involved

It is important to note that as a leader, it is your responsibility to educate and encourage your direct reports to disagree and challenge one another respectfully despite their cultural backgrounds. The organisation must emphasise the importance of diversity in thoughts and opinions to get the best out of their teams. This is only possible in an organisation that understands the importance of civility at the workplace. The lack of civility at the workplace can cause other unhealthy effects on the employees which could indirectly make the organisation a toxic place to work. So if someone is being disrespectful in discussions, you have to take immediate action to ensure they get timely feedback and not let that slip.

Use your 1-1s to exchange candid constructive feedback and introspect and understand how the conflict has evolved regularly. This helps to ensure your team doesn’t get disengaged from solving the real problem at hand - how the solution might affect the customer or the user of the application. I appreciate that I’m using a software team situation here, but I am certain the same applies for any domain.

1-1s are also a great opportunity to listen to the different points of view. It helps the individuals in the team to express their views openly to you, so help them by listening carefully and asking questions to remind them of the real problem and how their solution might solve it now or create further problems in the future. Giving the team members an opportunity to be heard by an unbiased listener is extremely important to ensure they get a chance to impartially evaluate the pros and cons of their choice of solution.


Conflicts may happen at any time in a team. I have primarily discussed this from the point of a team that disagrees on an approach to solve a problem. There might be conflicts that arise due to a bad team member, potentially someone that needs a performance improvement program. I have been fortunate enough to not have to deal with a conflict of that kind. However, in those cases a leader must not shy away from starting the performance improvement program for the said candidate. If a toxic person is present in the team, they could destroy the rest of the team’s morale and hence must be dealt with as if it were a critical incident.

To summarise, as a leader:

  1. Be aware of the conflict
  2. Keep regular checkpoints on the situation through 1-1s and other candid conversations
  3. Listen to the variety of viewpoints
  4. Deal with anyone who is not being civil in their discussions
  5. If a person is the problem, deal with their performance (likely not to be an issue in a high performing team)
  6. If the conflict is in a pretty bad situation, don’t forget to seek help from your peers, discuss the problem, ideas to move the conflict towards a resolution