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How To Make Conflict Productive At Work, On Zoom And At Home For The Holidays


In the workplace and in the home, we tend to think of conflict as an unequivocally bad thing, and usually avoid it wherever we can. But a growing body of research shows that certain types of conflict, when properly mediated, can make teams more productive and even bring families closer together. 

As we head into the holiday season — and many companies’ budget seasons — how can business leaders and family members foster good disagreements and work through them productively? And equally as important, how can they keep conflicts from slipping into the personal animus and entrenched beliefs that can sour relationships?

On the most recent Walker & Dunlop Walker Webcast, Wharton Professor Sigal Barsade and Harvard Business Review Editor Amy Gallo differentiated between various types of conflict. Task conflict — disagreements about what the group’s next goal should be — is actually linked to higher productivity and creativity, so long as all the parties personally feel happy and supported. 

“Positive emotions lead to the greatest creativity and productivity for teams,” Barsade told Walker & Dunlop CEO Willy Walker. “Task conflict is wonderful in a safe team. But it very often slips into relationship conflict, which has negative emotions and terrible results for productivity.”

On the webcast, Gallo and Barsade offered some overarching strategies for making conflict productive at the holiday dinner table, over Zoom and between co-workers and families this coming season. Read on for some of the takeaways.

Clarify The Goal

Whether we are talking to a co-worker or a family member, Gallo suggested that we think about what our goal is before launching into a conversation that will lead us into conflict. If the result isn’t going to be valuable, launching a conflict may not be worth the effort.

“Just showing someone their faults does not usually motivate them to change,” Gallo said. “So think about what your goal is. Is your aunt someone you see once a year over Thanksgiving, or is she someone you see regularly and who influences how the people around you think?”

If your goal is not to have an ongoing relationship with the other party, Gallo said, it may be fine not to engage and to move past conflict. But at work, or if you feel like someone’s language or choices are threatening to others, you may have an obligation to speak up.

Reset Expectations

While we may have a very nuanced understanding of our own side of a conflict, we rarely afford that same latitude to others.

“We think about our own circumstances and intentions, but we assign motives to others’ mistakes,” Barsade said. “If we could be as generous with others’ actions as we are with our own, all our lives would be more pleasant.”

Walker & Dunlop CEO Willy Walker, Wharton Professor Sigal Barsade and Harvard Business Review Editor Amy Gallo

Before entering into conflict, it can help to try to rid ourselves of preconceived notions and attempt to identify and then demystify the narratives about the situation that we have been telling ourselves. Gallo also suggested that we can attempt to reframe an upcoming conversation, not as a conflict, but as a way to understand the situation more carefully.

“Check your mindset and see if there’s anything you’re curious about or that you want to learn from the other person,” Gallo said. “What assumptions have you made that might be wrong? Where am I wrong? If we assume we have something to learn, we may no longer see the conflict itself as a threat to our resources or our ego.”

Consider The Medium 

Given how many corporate teams are working remotely, and how many families are holding remote holiday celebrations this year, it’s especially important to consider the medium for holding tough conversations. Over video calls, it is much harder to convey and receive body language and other unspoken forms of communication, and even speech patterns lack the same nuance. And because of the lack of physical proximity, it can be hard for teams or families to forge deeper bonds that can help them be more comfortable and resolve conflict more quickly in the future. 

“On videoconferences, we’re seeing successful leaders being more vulnerable and upfront about how they feel with their employees,” Barsade said. “Other members of the team will usually mimic what their leaders do, which can replicate that emotional contagion that relaxes and motivates people in the same room.”

Above all, Gallo and Barsade agreed, never try to resolve conflict over text or email. 

“People say, ‘I’m better at articulating myself in writing,’” Gallo said. “But we know from lots of research that you can’t convey the same emotional nuance as with voice and body language.”

Identify Emotional Patterns

Through our many interactions, we can begin to identify patterns within ourselves and within our colleagues and loved ones that can inform how we approach conflict resolution. Identifying patterns in others like normal responsiveness and tone can help us understand when something is amiss and may need to be resolved. And understanding our own habits, both good and bad, can help us gain a clearer head going into conflict.

“When you show up to a conversation that you’re dreading, the other person can usually pick up on the fact that you don’t want to have the conversation,” Gallo said. “They may interpret that as you saying ‘I’m uncomfortable’ or even ‘I don’t like you.’ Understanding your patterns can help you approach the conflict in a more positive way and let you work together to solve the problem.”

Employers have historically thought of emotions as clouding judgment or progress, but that is simply not true, Barsade said. Emotions are indicators of people’s cognitive and behavioral processes and how they work and live.

“Emotions are not noise,” she said. “They are data.”

On Dec. 2, Walker will host a conversation with Mark Parrell of Equity Residential and Owen Thomas of Boston PropertiesRegister here for the event.

This feature was produced in collaboration between the Bisnow Branded Content Studio and Walker & Dunlop. Bisnow news staff was not involved in the production of this content.