The Benefits of Encouraging Difficult Conversations in the Workplace

Avoiding conflict in the workplace can have costly consequences for organizations. Here’s a case for creating an organizational culture that has those uncomfortable conversations and some tips for how to do so.

Conflict is normal, even in the workplace. Maybe an employee thinks that someone on the team isn’t pulling his weight on a certain project or perhaps another employee thinks that her manager has unrealistic expectations surrounding a deadline. But instead of addressing these issues, oftentimes they go unspoken.

“In most organizational cultures, the problem isn’t people speaking up too much and getting into arguments—though that happens—but in many ways, the conflict happens, a disagreement arises or someone has a different opinion, and they avoid the conflict, they avoid the conversation,” said Justin Hale, a trainer, speaker, and training designer at leadership training company VitalSmarts.

And that conflict avoidance can affect an organization’s bottom line. In fact, according to some VitalSmarts research, employees waste an average of $1,500 and an eight-hour workday for every conversation that they avoid.

This is how it could happen. Take a software engineer, Hale said, who sits in a meeting and listens to the deadline and budget, and—in his head—he thinks there’s no way that this project will be successful with the time and money allotted. But because he doesn’t want to rock the boat or seem like the troublemaker by raising his concerns, he says nothing. What inevitably happens is that the project does fail, and the organization will have to use far more resources to fix the problem than they would’ve used just to do it right in the first place.

“People overestimate the short-term costs of saying something, thinking ‘Oh, it’s going to be uncomfortable,’ or ‘Oh, it’s going to be uncomfortable; it’s going to be a confrontation,’ or ‘Oh, we’re going to get into an argument’—and they overestimate all of those short-term costs, but what they underestimate is all the long-terms costs of not speaking up—all the things that are going to perpetuate, the things that aren’t going to go away,” Hale said.

What’s the solution here? According to Hale, it’s important that the HR department helps create a workplace environment where having healthy conflict is OK—even encouraged, and it’s also important that HR gives staff the skills and tools to be able to work out workplace conflicts among themselves. However, Hale is quick to mention that some conflicts—especially concerning discrimination and sexual harassment—must, by law, be handle by HR.

Still, for conflicts stemming from project management or performance management issues—or even just personality differences, Hale recommended getting in front of staff, perhaps at an all-staff meeting, and saying, “Hey, here are the types of conversations that we tend to get that we feel strongly can be held effectively by the team, and we believe that these will improve your relationships and make you a better team, and we’re going to teach you some skills to be able to handle it.”

Here are two key considerations for working having those difficult conversations:

Keep your conversations based on fact. The HR department should relate to staff that facts are paramount to a healthy dialogue over conflict. “People aren’t as good at sharing facts as they think they are,” Hale said. “They’ll have conversations and say, ‘You are so belligerent and inconsiderate!’ But those aren’t facts. That’s your conclusion.” Questions that staff can ask themselves are: What did the person do? What did they say? What was happening in the meeting? Did they cut you off? What language was used? Was there an email they sent you that was offensive or inappropriate?

Keep the right motives in mind. Hale said people often enter a conflict with the wrong motives in mind. “Rather than focusing on winning and punishing and being right and those types of things,” Hale recommended that staff shift their goals to considering how they might build a meaningful relationship through this conversation, along with how they can help one another improve and follow organizational policies through the conversation. At the end of the day, Hale said that “if you don’t learn ways to talk out your concern effectively, you’ll have a tendency to act them out … so learning to get your motive in check will help your behavior, your words, your tones follow suit.”

How does your organization encourage difficult conversations? Please leave your comments below.

(IPGGutenbergUKLtd/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Emily Bratcher

By Emily Bratcher

Emily Bratcher is a Contributing Editor for Associations Now. MORE

Got an article tip for us? Contact us and let us know!