Good conflict, bad conflict

Differences of opinion are quite common in a team and can often be seen as positive. However, you should be wary of unhealthy conflicts, which consume valuable resources such as time, trust and energy and therefore disrupt the working atmosphere and workflow. Such conflicts are often caused by so-called “conflict drivers” in the team – people who instrumentalise conflicts for their own purposes. This blog explains several steps you can take to identify these individuals and reduce their negative impact.


Team conflict: normal dynamics and potential risks

Conflict in the workplace takes many forms. “Positive conflict”, which is constructive, promotes personal development, strengthens cooperation in communities and optimises work processes in teams or organisations. However, there is a risk that conflicts can get out of control and cause significant damage. Such ‘bad conflicts’ can take up working time, damage trust between employees and sap the energy of the team. Once harmonious colleagues can be pitted against each other through such conflicts, which ultimately leads to a deterioration in the working atmosphere and thus a reduction in work performance.

The causes of such bad conflicts are manifold. However, one recurring element is the presence of conflict entrepreneurs. These individuals deliberately fuel conflicts and exploit them for their own personal ends. Reasons can be of a financial nature, but the desire for attention or power also play a decisive role. Although conflict drivers are not found in every organisation, some studies show that they are increasingly common in hospitals, universities and political or advocacy organisations.

You may have already experienced examples like this: a colleague with whom you previously worked well suddenly sends aggressive emails and upsets several uninvolved, often higher-ranking colleagues or managers. Or a colleague spreads rumours and suspicions about the company and its managers, whether via Slack or even social media. Usually this is not a one-off incident, but repeated. In a work environment, it is important to identify these destructive patterns early on and address them effectively to prevent long-term damage.


Identifying the drivers of conflict and dealing with them effectively

The first impulse when dealing with such conflicts is often to distance oneself from the people involved in the office. It may seem advisable to keep a safe distance, especially if they use highly polarised language or are happy to take any side in a conflict. However, it is not always possible to distance yourself from such people, especially if they are part of the team you lead or if they are your line manager.

Conflict drivers have a skilful way of winning others over to their cause. They tell convincing, emotional stories about how they have been wronged by a colleague and cause well-meaning colleagues to doubt, avoid and undermine each other. As a result, the problem spreads quickly.

Another obvious approach to dealing with conflict drivers is to confront them. Unfortunately, this often fails to bring about the desired changes and can even escalate the conflict.

So what do you do when such a person brings many people to the brink of exhaustion? In such cases, counter-intuitive measures are often more effective. Measures that are the opposite of what instinctively comes to mind. Dealing professionally with conflict drivers requires a careful strategy aimed at interrupting destructive dynamics and encouraging constructive communication.


Strategies for dealing constructively with conflicts

  • Quickly identify the drivers of conflict

It is important to identify conflict drivers quickly. Be aware, however, that not everyone who criticises, disagrees, contacts HR or complains to the works council is automatically a conflict driver. A key characteristic is the recurring pattern of dysfunction, extreme behaviour and constant finger-pointing. Conflict drivers tend to be quick to blame and articulate new injustices that no one else would consider. Once you have identified a potential conflict driver, resist the temptation to attack this person in front of others – although it is tempting, you should not respond with negative behaviour as well.

  • Engage in an intensive dialogue with the conflict driver

Invest time in talking to, listening to and understanding the conflict driver. The key is to make a connection, because conflict drivers in particular want to be heard. This may be your chance to get through to this person.

  • Redirecting the energy

In a work environment, this means redirecting the conflict driver’s energy towards something productive that is important to both parties. Offer alternatives rather than prescribe. Coaching is often an effective way of changing the dynamic.

  • Building a culture of conflict

The most effective strategy is to build a positive culture of conflict within the organisation. This includes asking questions, encouraging honest disagreement, establishing a good feedback culture and behaving with a minimum of respect for each individual. Good conflict does not just happen. It needs rituals, clear boundaries and the opportunity to face tensions rather than avoid them. Rules for constructive conflict that everyone can accept should be developed together with employees.


Here are some examples of “good conflict”-practices in companies:

  • Direct communication when problems arise: If you have a problem, talk to the person first (unless the behaviour is illegal, offensive or dangerous). Do this in person or by telephone
  • Prepare proposed solutions: Develop proposed solutions in advance before entering into the conflict dialogue.
  • Ask open-ended questions in case of disagreement: During disagreements, ask many open-ended questions with genuine interest and curiosity.
  • Reflection and understanding: Reflect on what you have heard and check that you have understood correctly, even if you continue to disagree.
  • Trusted mediator: Find a trusted mediator who can facilitate difficult conversations.
  • Publicly recognise good conflict behaviour: Reward and publicly demonstrate positive conflict behaviour, especially when onboarding new employees.
  • Reject backroom discussions and anonymous attacks: Do not engage in (supposedly) confidential backroom discussions or anonymous attacks.
  • Create a safe environment for discussion: Create a safe and trusting environment for discussion, where constructive debate is positively valued and people do not fear resentment (psychological safety). Set clear rules and expectations to provide a sense of predictability and security.

In the dynamic world of team conflicts, it is crucial to distinguish between healthy disputes and harmful conflicts with conflict drivers. Identification and targeted action are key aspects of minimising the negative impact. Conducting constructive conversations, redirecting energy and building a positive conflict culture can improve the working atmosphere and ultimately create a more productive workplace.


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