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Conflict: Constructive or Destructive?

What creates conflict in your organization? Different views on business decisions and strategy? Disagreement about tactics? Poor relationships and personality clashes? Conflict occurs for many reasons. But, by changing how you respond to conflict, you can reduce its harmful effects and maximize its useful ones.

"If it is well managed, conflict can have positive outcomes," says CCL's Brenda McManigle. "Conflict can lead to better decision making, expose key issues, stimulate critical thinking and fuel creativity and innovation."

CCL and Eckerd College Leadership Development Institute (a CCL Licensed Associate with a strong focus on conflict management) teach managers to distinguish between constructive and destructive conflict. "By learning to increase constructive responses to conflict and reduce destructive ones, managers can defuse tensions and find productive solutions to difficult problems," says McManigle.

Constructive Responses. Behaviors that help to build relationships, manage emotions and accept and resolve conflict are considered constructive responses. They emphasize task-completion and problem solving, creativity and exchange of ideas and the expression of positive emotions. When constructive behaviors are the norm in a group or organization, typical outcomes include:

  • Win-win solutions.
  • Open and honest communication of feelings.
  • The needs of both parties being met.
  • Non-judgmental actions.
  • Less insistence on sticking adamantly to one position.
  • Active resolution of conflict (not allowing conflict to continue).
  • Thoughtful, not impulsive, responses.
  • Improved team performance.

Destructive Responses. Destructive responses prolong and inflame conflict and get in the way of productivity. Trying to win no matter what, lack of respect for others, avoiding conflict and negatively expressing emotions are destructive. These behaviors will lead to:

  • Feelings of anger and frustration.
  • Judgmental actions.
  • Getting even and keeping score.
  • Parties not having needs met.
  • Closed channels of communication.
  • Refusal to deal with issues.
  • Decreased self-confidence.
  • Incomplete tasks.
  • Decreased team performance.

If your work environment shows the signs of destructive responses, you'll want to identify the behaviors that are undermining resolution and rein them in. Set new norms and expectations for handling disagreements and begin to develop the skills that lead to more constructive outcomes.

Two Types of Conflict
In the throes of conflict, it's easy for people to get out of control. One way to bring focus to the issue is to determine whether the conflict is task-oriented or personal.

Task-Oriented Conflict

  • Is cognitive and focuses on ideas, not personalities.
  • Effect is neutral or positive.
  • Unrelated, or positively related, to group functioning.

Personal Conflict

  • Is emotional and focuses on people, not ideas.
  • Effect is negative.
  • Negatively related to group functioning.
  • Can escalate rapidly.

This issue of Leading Effectively draws on the following three CCL Ideas into Action guidebooks: