Differences Between Destructive & Constructive Conflict

Preventing conflict in the workplace is a position that many business leaders strive for. Often, conflict is perceived as having negative consequences on the team, and leaders want cohesive teams working in harmony. However, not all conflict in the office is bad. Learn the difference between destructive and constructive conflict, and develop tools to use constructive conflict to your benefit.

Differentiating Conflict

Conflict occurs when people disagree or have differing views on topics. In the workplace, destructive conflict hinders work performance, because people refuse to speak to each other or they don't have civilized conversations. Destructive conflict between two people can bring down the morale of an entire department, thereby reducing productivity and efficiency.

Constructive conflict embraces differing ideas and worldviews, in an effort to move the company toward its goals and mission. This type of conflict increases productivity, rather than hampers it. Rachel Ligman of Ohio State University, says that conflict should be seen as positive when it results in clarification of issues, results in people learning about each other, or results in people considering new ideas.

Although conflict can stem from any conversation or action, there are common destructive conflict scenarios seen in the workplace resulting in constructive behavior. Minor conflicts have to do with one person regularly taking another person's lunch or parking space. More significant issues could involve harassment or discrimination. Conflict that's positive but includes constructive conflict in teams, like brainstorming sessions where people disagree. Another example is to challenge company protocol because someone sees a better way of doing things.

Stopping Destructive Conflict

Destructive conflict needs to be addressed as soon as it is identified or reported. Doing so prevents the situation from escalating, which would further bring down team morale and productivity. Stopping destructive conflict also prevents potential legal actions.

Stopping destructive conflict starts with having a current employee handbook that's distributed to everyone. The handbook should have a section that establishes the company policies for conflict resolution and for reporting harassing or discriminatory actions. The protocol should state how the company acts in these situations, and should state the potential disciplinary actions that can result. Train employees on their communication skills as well as company policies to help stop destructive conflict from escalating.

Promoting Constructive Conflict

Promote constructive conflict to help open the eyes of team members to new views, opinions and ways of doing things. As the HR Department at the University of Oklahoma points out, conflict is often indicative of upcoming personal or professional growth, once it has been resolved. Encourage people to offer opinions in team meetings and hold team-building exercises to help employees develop a real respect for each other. Work on communication skills to help employees learn to speak tactfully and listen to other's perspectives. Hold diversity events and celebrate the cultural differences of the people on the team.

Managers have a special role in working with constructive conflict: employee reviews. These are often stressful for everyone. When approached as a means to help employees become better in every way, the conflict of the situation changes from negative criticism to constructive development.