Conflict is normal anytime you have people together, especially people with differing viewpoints and opinions.
If you have more than one person in your organization, you are likely to have some form of conflict or disagreement to occur.
Conflict in itself is okay. The problem is when we handle it poorly.
Many have a fear of organizational conflict. There are disagreements between coworkers, departments, leaders, and so on.
The question is, how do you overcome the fear of organizational conflict? And why should you? How can conflict be good?
Also, if you are a leader, how do you help your employees embrace and overcome their fear of organizational conflict?
In this article, we will dive into how to overcome the fear of organizational conflict for you as a person and how you can help your team do the same.
Table of Contents
First, we need to define what organizational conflict is:
What is organizational conflict?
Organizational conflict refers to disagreements, disputes, or differences of opinion between individuals or groups within an organization. These conflicts can arise from differences in values, goals, communication styles, resources, etc.
Organizational conflict in itself isn’t bad. Conflicts and disagreements handled well can help your organization grow and help you vet new ideas and make better decisions. It’s when it is handled poorly that it is a problem.
There are two aspects we will cover, for yourself and for your employees. Let’s cover the “for yourself” first.
How to overcome your fear of organization conflict
Let’s go over some possible steps you can take to help you overcome your fear.
Realize that conflict in itself isn’t bad (and in fact can be good)
Conflict from disagreement
You may feel that if you have a disagreement with someone or there’s some arguing, that it’s a bad thing.
Some may fear it because they worry about what other people will think of them when they disagree.
Many think that what you should want in an organization or group of friends or family is for everyone to always agree. As a leader, you may think your goal is to always get consensus in decisions.
That is not the case.
Disagreement is good.
We all have varying opinions and viewpoints. We see situations differently. When we take the time to listen to other viewpoints, we learn more. We gain more knowledge.
When working with teams and coworkers, by sharing disagreements and different viewpoints, we vet ideas better. We see potential downfalls. We gain insights we may not have otherwise.
In fact, as a leader of a team, if all you get is people who agree with your ideas, you have a problem.
Your goal is not to get an agreement of mind, but action.
Conflict from negative behaviors
There’s another aspect though -what if someone is doing something that bothers you or that negatively impacts the team, yourself, or others?
Many of us may fear that form of conflict. It’s uncomfortable for us. Often we say we don’t want to say anything because it may hurt their feelings, but truthy, it’s because we don’t want to deal with their possible reaction or the feelings we may have because of it.
However, it’s good and important to speak up.
1. It shows you care about the other person
When you speak up, when you confront someone about their behavior, though they may not see it initially (or ever), it really shows you care about them and want them to be better.
When you don’t speak up and let them continue in that negative behavior, that’s truthfully a lack of care for that person.
If you truly cared about the other person you would say or do something so they wouldn’t continue behaviors that are harming themselves or their careers.
It’s also how you grow as a person. When you and others feel comfortable enough to confront each other and challenge each other, everyone benefits from greater growth.
2. It shows care for yourself
Being a pushover benefits no one. If someone treats you poorly or takes advantage of you, and you don’t say anything, then you are giving tacit approval for that behavior.
It’s okay and good to speak up. People are more likely to respect you and you will likely have better relationships with people.
It also protects you from extra stress and overwhelms and built-up hurt that can come from not speaking up.
3. It benefits the team and company
When you allow negative behavior to continue (especially as a leader), it impacts the team negatively. They can lose morale and productivity. People may have to work around the person.
Depending on the behavior, the team may question why they are working hard or doing X, Y, and Z when someone else isn’t and nothing is being done about it.
When you confront others and their behaviors, it gives them the opportunity to change and in the long run, whatever happens with them, it grows the trust and confidence of the team and helps the team and company move forward better.
Differentiate between negative conflict and positive conflict
Negative conflict often comes from the wrong goal or wrong mindset – to “win” the argument, to “beat” the other person, to “prove” you are right.
The problem is, with these mentalities, it’s a losing battle. Even if you win the argument, you lose.
Positive conflict comes more from the goal of “let’s find the best solution”, “I want to resolve this issue while maintaining good relationships”, and “It’s about finding the best idea, not my idea”.
Positive conflict is about helping find the best ideas or helping each other. It’s about confronting others about behaviors because you care about them and want them (and yourself) to succeed.
Negative conflict usually is selfish. It’s about getting what you want or proving your point.
Some people are more negative and toxic. For some people, their goal is always themselves, and getting into arguments with them can be counterproductive. You may say what needs to be said, then at some point cut it off, because they don’t want to listen.
Also, when you discuss people’s behaviors with someone, there may be defensiveness and negative reactions. That doesn’t mean necessarily that the conflict is bad.
Even though there may be a negative reaction, the confrontation is good because they will either change or you at least spoke up. Some, even if they don’t change immediately, will see in the long run that you cared.
Your self-worth is not based on others liking you or on their feelings toward you
It’s important to remember your self-worth is not based on others’ opinions of you. It’s not based on if they like you or not. It’s not based on if they are happy with you are not.
Your self-worth is based on just the fact that you are a human. You are self-worth is based on you, your God-given value, and who you are, not others’ opinions.
Sometimes we may hesitate to speak up or such because we fear others’ opinions of us.
But we have to remember if we care about ourselves, the other person, and a better situation, speaking up is the best thing,
And, even if they don’t like us afterward, that doesn’t affect who you are as a person, your importance, or your self-worth.
Caring is when you speak up
We mentioned this earlier. Caring is when you speak up. You show your care when you speak up, even with the possibility of people disagreeing or reacting negatively.
Not caring is saying nothing, even if it’s to avoid those uncomfortable feelings.
Understand the source of your fear as much as you can
Take time to examine the source of your fear. Why do you fear confrontation? Why do you fear conflict? Why do you fear disagreement?
- Is it from past personal experience or trauma?
- Is it a lack of conflict resolution skills?
- Do you fear negative consequences, rejection, or negative feelings?
- Do you fear how other people will feel toward you or how they will respond?
- Is it a cultural or societal expectation? In your culture, is conflict looked down upon or not a norm?
- Is it because of the position or power balance of the person you want to confront?
- Do you fear retribution?
Take time to examine and see why you fear conflict. Then, try to work through it. Get help to do so if you need to.
Think about what you’re afraid will happen in various conflict scenarios
Take time to think about what you fear may happen. Write it out if you can. Sometimes taking the time to think through it can help us have a better perspective of it.
Ask, “What is the worst-case scenario?”
By asking what the worst-case scenario is, you can put the potential consequences into perspective. It helps you assess the likelihood of that outcome, along with others, and consider the impact of it on yourself and others. It also can help you minimize or mitigate possible risks.
You often may find, too, that the worst-case scenario is not as bad as you think it is and that avoiding it actually can be a worse choice or a missed opportunity for growth, for them and you.
Prepare ahead of time
When you are planning to confront or discuss an issue with someone, plan ahead. Think about what you want to say, how to say it, and what their response may be.
Think through it and your responses, and it can help you overcome some of the fear and be more prepared for the conversation.
List the benefits of speaking up (and the potential downfalls of not speaking up)
Take time to list the benefits of speaking up. What good can happen from it?
Also, think about the downfalls of not speaking up. What can/will happen if you don’t?
The sooner you act, the smaller the fear
The longer you take to act or speak up, the greater the fear will grow.
Yes, depending on what it is, you likely want to spend time preparing, but the longer you wait to speak, the harder it could get, for various reasons, including fear.
Start small (if needed)
If you have a hard time even thinking about confronting someone, find a way to start small with someone you trust. Find some small request or change or something simple as switching seats or using different cups or paper or whatever.
Find a way to start small with someone you trust, and it can help you build your confidence.
How to help your employees overcome the fear of conflict
As a leader, you want your team to disagree with you. You want your team to have healthy disagreements and discussions about ideas and decisions and plans.
You also want a culture where your employees aren’t afraid to give you or others feedback if it will help each other grow.
That’s part of a healthy team and culture. When you don’t have that, it’s a warning sign.
Here are some strategies you can use to help your team overcome the fear of conflict.
Establish a culture of safety and trust
Probably the best and most important step you can take to encourage disagreement and dissent and healthy conflict is to create an environment of trust where employees feel safe doing so.
If they don’t feel safe speaking up or disagreeing or bringing up problems without the fear of retribution or the need to protect themselves, then it’s not going to happen.
This takes time, especially if the culture has been one where they don’t feel safe, but it’s worth it.
You first have to be someone they can trust and you also need to show trust to your team.
You need to let them know you expect and want criticism and disagreement, and show it. If you get defensive when someone disagrees with your ideas or upset when someone brings up a problem, then you are doing the opposite.
If they see you as out to “get them” vs to support them, that you are out to punish any mistake they make, they won’t feel safe.
Ask for criticism
One great way to show you want feedback, dissent, and disagreement is to ask for criticism and feedback.
Ask your team, maybe starting one on one, how you can be a better leader, what you can do differently, what their viewpoint of X or Y is, and why.
Don’t give in when they say nothing, press it. Let them know you are serious about receiving feedback and disagreement.
Encourage dissent, and make it happen
During meetings and even in one on ones, encourage dissent. Ask others to speak up. If you see someone being hesitant, ask them to speak.
If no one disagrees, ask someone to play devil’s advocate or point out a potential fault. Keep the conversation going in those directions.
The more you encourage it and show it is okay and expected, the more your team will start to do it.
Model the behaviors you want
It’s good to start by asking people to give you feedback, but also model the behavior, the feedback, and the disagreement, you want.
Be good about giving others feedback, both positive and constructive.
In meetings, ask questions against your own arguments if no one is willing to speak up. Model how to give feedback, how to disagree, and so on.
Teach proper conflict mentality and behaviors
You may need to teach your employees how to effectively deal with conflict.
You may need to first teach them that conflict is good, model to them and pull the disagreement out of them (as we talked about above), and make it a norm.
Teach them good conflict resolution skills and strategies and how to give feedback appropriately.
Also, you want to teach them that you aren’t about the consensus of mind. It’s okay if everyone doesn’t agree. What matters is once a decision is made, everyone agrees to the action of the decision.
Give praise and critiques (and let people know your goal is improvement)
Give good feedback to your team, both positive and constructive.
Before you start, as mentioned above, start with them critiquing you.
You also want to let them know and emphasize that the goal is improvement, not “getting them” or showing they are deficient.
Give good praise, and give good critiques, all for helping them grow and improve.
(A good book on giving great feedback is Radical Candor).
Teach and model a growth mindset
A fixed mindset thinks you’ve got all the smarts and abilities you will ever have from birth, and people with fixed mindsets often avoid challenges or criticism because they don’t want anything to show that they are less than what they think of themselves.
A growth mindset believes you can always grow and get better. Your smarts and ability aren’t predetermined, you always get smarter and improve yourself.
Help your team learn about and have a growth mindset so that they are about constant growth, not trying to defend their level of “smartness” or ability.
Reward and give appreciation to those who speak up and disagree
You get what you reward.
When people speak up, disagree, offer feedback, and so on, praise them. Show appreciation. Reward them.
The more you reward and appreciate those who do the behaviors you want, the more of those behaviors you are likely to get.
How to confront someone about a behavior
There are different types of conflict, one being where you need to confront someone about a behavior.
We have multiple articles related to conflict, but I’ll give a quick list of potential steps here.
Focus on the behavior, not the person
Don’t attack the person or attribute the behavior to their character. Treat it as behavior. Separate the two.
Mention that the person’s reports have had lots of grammar issues, not that the person is lazy.
Remember your goal
Remember what your goal is. In personal relationships, it’s to maintain and better the relationship while resolving the issue.
In the workplace, it’s usually close to the same. You likely want to maintain a positive relationship while solving the issue or helping the person overcome a problem.
Be professional. Speak professionally. Don’t act ugly.
Talk about the situation, the behavior, and its impact
Meet with the person and talk about the behavior. Talk about the situation, the behavior that happened, and its impact.
“At meetings, you put down other people’s ideas without really listening. Other people have stopped speaking up because of this.”
Be clear and direct – don’t beat around the bush
Don’t “hint” at the behavior or try to be indirect about it. Be clear and direct. You can use tact, but don’t try to cover it up so much that you don’t really say what needs to be said.
Clear and direct (with tact as needed) is best.
Think about it this way: how do you want people to tell you? To hint at an issue or to be forthright about it?
This is one of the most important steps. Once you discuss the behavior, listen to the other person and their viewpoint. Really listen.
Try to understand their perspective. Go back and forth discussing it as needed, asking questions.
I statements are when you talk about yourself and how the behavior affects you vs. attacking them. For example:
“When you take the items on my desk without asking, it frustrates me because I have them in specific places and then I have to rearrange them again.”
Come up with a solution
This really depends on the behavior or what’s being confronted. It could be simple as “would you please not do that in the future” to something greater.
As a leader, depending on the behavior, you may want the person to work through solutions to the problem.
How to disagree well
When you disagree with someone, here are some potential strategies you can use:
- Find common ground – find what you agree on, then build off of that. “I agree with you on this. And I also think…”
- Don’t make personal attacks. Your goal is to come up with the best idea, not prove you are right.
- Acknowledge the other person’s perspective.
- Listen well.
- You can start statements with phrases like, “I disagree with that because..”
- Know you may never completely agree with each other – and that’s okay.
FAQs about How to Overcome Fear of Organization Conflict:
Is conflict bad?
No. Conflict isn’t bad. Conflict is normal. It’s normal to disagree and have different opinions. Varying opinions are good because that’s how we get better ideas and improve the ones we have.
What can be bad, sometimes, is the way we handle those disagreements.
How can you prevent conflict in an organization?
It depends on what you mean by preventing conflict in an organization. If you want to get rid of all or as much as you can, that’s not feasible nor what you want.
Yes, you could create an environment of such fear that everyone fears speaking up or saying anything to anyone – that, of course, is not healthy in the slightest.
You don’t want to prevent a conflict – you want to teach your people how to handle conflict well and how to have the right mindset toward conflict. Conflict is normal and important for a well-functioning business or organization.
You may want to prevent the negative conflict that can come about when people have the wrong purposes and goals in their conflict – but that can come through the right policies and training (and, if needed, removing a few people).
How can leaders create a culture that encourages healthy conflict and open communication without causing fear among employees?
First, you have to have the right culture and environment and model it from the top. If you say you are open to ideas but shut down anyone who disagrees with the CEO or yourself, then your actions are not matching your words. You must have a safe environment where people feel they can speak up without fear or retaliation.
Second, help train your people to have the right mindset of conflict (coming up with the best ideas; handling a situation in a way that respects everyone and that’s for the good of each person and the company; it’s okay if you disagree) and train them in healthy conflict resolution skills.
Final Thoughts On How to Overcome Fear of Organizational Conflict
Conflict is not something that we need to fear or run from.
While we may have those butterflies fluttering in our bellies as we confront someone or disagree, we need to remember that often the best thing we can do is to make that confrontation or disagreement, not hide it.
Take some time to see why you may fear it or your team may struggle with it. Then use some of the action steps and work toward building a culture (and a personal mentality) where conflict, done right, is a good thing.
If you have any questions, suggestions, ideas, disagreements, or anything we missed, please let us know in the comments below.
You can find more related articles here.
- The Definitive Guide to Conflict Resolution In Work & Life
- How To Handle Difficult Situations As A Leader: 17 Essential Tips