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Embracing conflict in the workplace

Sept. 4, 2022
Conflict isn't always a negative. Here's how it can actually foster a positive environment that encourages communication, innovation, and creativity.

When we hear the word “conflict,” it tends to bring up negative feelings or thoughts. Conflict is something that we usually go out of our way to avoid. Even with the best intentions, it can’t always be avoided and will remain a part of our lives. Whether it is conflict within personal relationships or among colleagues, it is inevitable.

Conflict in the workplace can be a barrier to production and job satisfaction if not handled well. But what if we changed the way we looked at conflict? What if it wasn’t meant to be eliminated? What if there was a way to deal with it that resulted in creative solutions rather than negativity or drama?

What is conflict?

My favorite definition of conflict comes from Nate Regier, PhD, author, speaker, and conflict communication specialist. He defines conflict as “the gap between what we want and what we are experiencing at any point in time.”1 I appreciate this definition because it shows that conflict is truly just a gap; nothing more, nothing less. This definition removes words with negative connotations such as “disagreement,” and is based purely on facts and logic. Emotion is introduced into the equation by the way we choose to respond to conflict.

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The gap, or conflict, creates energy that can either be used to create a bigger gap between people or to start the process of building a bridge between two different perspectives, ideas, or opinions. The mere existence of a gap does no harm. The potential harm comes from how you decide to proceed with the energy that is created.

Responding appropriately

When conflict comes up at work, we have choices on how to proceed. Do we go to the corner that we’ve always known and become defensive and close our minds to other possible solutions? Or do we choose to be open to other perspectives and ideas even if they aren’t our own? The easiest option is to go into our safe, comfortable corner that we have always gone to when we feel conflict arising. The goal in this corner is to justify, prove, and defend our position. This option is the easiest choice because it’s what we’ve always done; it’s our default position. It’s easy because it causes no personal discomfort and doesn’t require us to challenge our ideas. It’s the path of least resistance. When approached with drama or conflict, our defenses go up and our empathy usually goes down.

Another option is to consider other perspectives and be open to the possibility of other solutions even if it challenges the status quo. This second option doesn’t feel as comfortable or as easy as the first option. Choosing to be open, without becoming defensive, can be difficult for most people. Putting our ego to the side and thinking of the team as a whole can be a challenge. Negative conflict usually arises when we make our own beliefs and opinions the priority and fail to consider what may be best for the team. When we remain open to other perspectives, conflict allows us to see another point of view or a possible solution that we might not have considered. It allows us to ignite positive change.

Potential advantages of conflict

Conflict strengthens relationships. Have you ever felt like you had to tiptoe around someone because you were afraid of setting them off? I’m sure many of us have been in this position in the workplace. Part of the reason we might not approach the person is because of the anxiety that we experience from not knowing how they will react to what we have to say. We might avoid the conversation for a time and hope things get better. In reality, when we avoid the conversation, we hold resentment inside and use it as ammunition for the next time something happens. However, when you successfully work through a conflict with someone, you strengthen the relationship in the process. You are better able to understand their communication style, what they value in a relationship, and what they need to feel understood. You are now better equipped to handle the next situation that might arise with that person.

Conflict brings issues to the surface. There is a good chance that issues are being discussed around the office between team members, and management has no idea that an issue even exists. When employees don’t feel like they have permission to bring up difficult conversations with management, small issues usually turn into larger ones. However, if an employer or manager is approachable, there is no reason for employees to discuss issues with other employees since they can go straight to their employer or manager with ideas on how to resolve the issues. You may find that some of the issues brought up have been simmering under the surface for some time. Permitting employees to openly communicate without fear is one of the best ways to make sure issues don’t linger for too long.

Conflict results in less managerial involvement. When an environment is open and promotes creative conflict resolution, employees will take the initiative to solve the problems with other team members without having to involve management. When they feel like they are in control of the outcome and are given the freedom to resolve their own conflicts, employees feel more ownership in resolving issues. This will lead to less micromanaging of the team and will give employees the ability to increase their leadership skills. Good employees are willing to take the initiative to find solutions to the issues they are dealing with. Allow them to develop these personal and professional skills to have a happier, more well-rounded team.

A conflict that results in progress must happen in a safe environment that promotes openness without the fear of judgment or retaliation. When employers create an environment of openness and acceptance of new ideas, employee morale and job satisfaction increase. It may require leaders to consider other ways of doing things, especially if the office has always done things a certain way.

Some office managers or dentists may not be open to these ideas as they may think they will come off as weak or not in charge. This is simply not true. Great leaders inspire, motivate, and engage employees through positivity and creativity. They do not motivate out of fear or negativity. When leaders engage with fear or negativity, they may get an immediate result, but they will lose valuable and loyal employees in the process.

Now that we have discussed the benefits of conflict, let’s look at some ways that an office can create an environment that encourages communication, innovation, and creativity.

Keep an open mind

The phrase “we have always done it this way” is one of the worst phrases that can be used. This type of statement shows rigidity and lack of openness from employers. Employees will shut down and lose interest in giving their opinions and ideas. Be open to the idea of better and more effective solutions from employees. If dentists value their staff and feel confident in their abilities, they should welcome input. Chances are that employees have already come up with possible solutions to common problems that can make the office more efficient.

When an environment of creativity and innovation is encouraged, there is a sense of internal ownership among employees. They feel empowered and almost obligated to come up with solutions to some of the issues they are facing. When employees are permitted to think creatively to solve their own problems, many problems can be solved without having to involve management.

Talk it out

When larger issues come up, there is a temptation to just hope that things will work themselves out, but this is rarely the case. When issues are not addressed early on, it gives the team time to come up with their own interpretation of what the problem is. Employees are looking for leaders to take charge when things start to fall apart. They want someone to steer the ship when the waters get rough, someone who isn’t afraid to tackle the problem head-on and listen to all perspectives.

Consistency is key

Conflict can often feel like a personal attack on the employee. Sometimes an employee can feel like management is treating one employee better than another employee, or that other coworkers are getting special treatment. To keep negative conflict at a minimum, employers need to be very clear about employee expectations from the beginning of employment and remain as consistent as possible. These expectations can be thoroughly documented by using a comprehensive employee manual to which employees have easy access. Consistently enforcing these policies minimizes the possibility of employees feeling as if they are being singled out when policy violation issues come up.

Understand that conflict is going to happen and that it’s perfectly normal. Dental offices employ a variety of personality types, backgrounds, and communication styles. By redefining conflict, encouraging a culture of openness, and permitting employees to think creatively, some of the issues that dental offices experience can be eliminated. Not only will it increase office productivity and employee morale, but it will also translate to a better patient experience. Patients can sense when there is tension between employees, and it can make them feel uneasy and even question whether or not they chose the right provider. When the patient senses that the team is working together, they feel confident in their choice of dental provider and that they can count on a wonderful dental experience each time they visit the office.

Editor's note: Originally posted in 2020 and updated regularly


1. Robinson B. Using conflict for good—a conversation with Nate Regier. Lead Change. October 12, 2016. https://leadchangegroup.com/using-conflict-for-good-a-conversation-with-nate-regier/