When managed effectively, disagreements can spark fresh thinking and shape future growth.
Few things create more tension and unpleasantness at the workplace than an ugly argument. After a shouting match, those who were involved feel angry and humiliated, while those who witnessed it feel uncomfortable and stressed.
This is not to say that all disagreements are bad. In his Harvard Business Review article, The Arguments Your Company Needs, Michael Schrage explains that the most important argument an organisation is having right now reveals its fundamentals and current priorities. The leadership plays a key role in making this conflict constructive. Are leaders listening to and facilitating the discussion, thus enabling new ideas and analysis? Or are inconvenient opinions simply labelled dissent and shut down? Or is the same argument allowed to drag on for years, keeping the company trapped in a rut?
Today, my message focuses on how leaders can handle arguments more effectively – at an individual as well as team level.
Schrage explains that workplace arguments fall into three categories: 1) strategic disagreements, which are generally straightforward; 2) values-related conflict, which tends to be more complex; and 3) people-centric arguments, which are the worst and most dangerous. If the most fervent arguments around you are about “what that manager did” or “how that leader behaves”, then you have a problem.
Healthy conflict is important for any high-performing team. Without the opportunity to disagree openly and resolve issues, resentment simmers and the team dynamic becomes toxic. Arguments are a sign that people are comfortable and confident enough to express diverse viewpoints.
They also energise people and drive growth by creating space for fresh thinking, inspiration, and learning. The freedom to challenge ideas keeps the team from getting too complacent. Finally, constructive arguments allow you to identify potential leaders within your team – those who are confident, can engage others, and bring about a satisfactory resolution.
The problem arises when arguments turn ugly and unproductive – as they frequently can. Damaging behaviours include refusing to listen to the other person, raising your voice, and making things personal.
As leaders, we have to be able to model and foster healthy conflict. Here are nine ways to help you better manage arguments at the workplace:
1. Listen more, talk less
Over 2,000 years ago, Greek philosopher Zeno offered this evergreen piece of advice: “We have two ears and one mouth, so we should listen more than we say.” When someone approaches you in an emotional state of mind, it is best to let them vent and take some of the emotion out of the situation. Listening quietly can defuse a potentially heated conflict before it spirals out of control.
Too often, we stop people before they can fully express their feelings, itching to jump to our defence and present our own point of view. Resist that urge and let them say their piece. Try to wait a few seconds after the person has finished their sentence before you begin talking.
2. Get to the root
Often, the true cause of a person’s anger is hidden underneath their furious statements. Ask questions, and try to get to the bottom of the issue. Does the person feel hurt? Disrespected? Worried? Taken for granted? Insight into the real reason they are upset will help you reach a resolution.
Demonstrate that you are open to their point of view with questions like “Why did that upset you?” or “How do you see this issue?” or “What am I missing?”. These are neutral, open-ended queries – your colleague’s answers are likely to reveal their true feelings.
3. Validate the other person
It’s easy to slip into the “I am right, you are wrong” mind set in an argument. In this frame of mind, you tend to invalidate the other person. After they speak, you go straight to your own point without acknowledging what they said. Or you question their abilities and motives. Or you turn your back to them and face the other people in the room instead. These behaviours clearly communicate that you don’t value or respect the other person, which can escalate the argument further and also affect your long-term relationship.
In her Harvard Business Review piece, When an Argument Gets Too Heated, Liane Davey explains how validation can transform an argument:
Rather than negating the other person’s perspective, you accept two things: 1) it’s valuable to hear different perspectives and to ensure the team is thinking an issue through fully, and 2) the person you’re arguing with is adding value by presenting a unique point of view.
The minute you accept that the conflict is productive and that the person you’re in conflict with is worthy, the nature of the conflict will immediately change for the better. The tone will improve as the conflict becomes centered on the ideas rather than the individuals who are presenting them.
4. Clarify the issue
Many arguments turn ugly and end up going nowhere because the people involved are at cross-purposes – they’re not really talking about the same thing. To address this disconnect, describe the situation and objective in detail so that you are both on the same page. When the other person finishes speaking, paraphrase what they said and repeat it back to them – this way, you can make sure you have understood their point correctly.
5. Get past winning
As a leader, you probably find yourself in a lot of debates. Using sound logic and making a convincing case is sometimes important. But more often than not, a leader’s role is not to “win” an argument, but to engage people and facilitate dialogue. So, let go of the addiction to always being right (I know it can be difficult!).
Focus, instead, on exploring the issue and enriching the group’s perspective on it. Build a sense of collaboration with questions like “How can we solve this together?” and “What else will help us make this a success?”. When people feel confident that they have heard all sides, you can arrive at a better conclusion – one which has real buy-in.
6. Un-hijack your brain
Winning arguments is literally addictive. In high-stress situations, a hormone called cortisol is released in your brain. This causes your primitive instincts to take over, and higher thinking processes like empathy, trust building, and strategy are suppressed. Faced with conflict, the most common instinctive response is to fight: you raise your voice, keep arguing the same point, and talk over everyone else. And when you emerge victorious, your brain floods with adrenaline and dopamine – feel-good hormones that make you feel powerful.
To overcome this addiction to fighting and winning, you need to kick start the production of a different hormone – oxytocin, which is created when you connect deeply with people. By facilitating healthy, empathetic discussion, you can activate the production of feel-good oxytocin in the brains of everyone involved.
7. Bridge the culture gap
How you argue has a lot to do with your cultural background. With teams now spanning multiple continents, understanding these differences has become crucial. For example, some cultures approach conflict very directly. They spell out exactly what they think you did wrong and how they would like you to fix it. To outsiders, this can appear confrontational and hurtful. But remember, it is not a personal attack on you or your authority – it is simply considered efficient.
While working with others, you may need to adopt the opposite mind set. Here, conflict management is all about subtlety: the goal is to maintain a pleasant, respectful relationship while ironing out differences. To express disagreement, your colleague might simply say, “Hmm, there could be difficulties with that” or tell you a story with an underlying message. Such subtle cues can be frustrating to decipher, but remember that direct confrontation is considered rude.
8. Adjust for gender imbalance
Navigating workplace arguments is even tougher for women, who tend to be judged more harshly than men. Many assertive women find themselves labelled aggressive or bossy – this can make them hesitant to voice disagreement in the future. Women are also more likely to be interrupted and dismissed in a discussion, not to mention the fact that their valuable inputs are often mistakenly attributed to the person who talked over them.
Leaders must create an environment where women can take their place as equal participants in debates. Find ways for women to get enough speaking time and make it a point to credit them for input.
9. Set rules for engagement
To better manage team conflict, you can lay down some ground rules for discussions. Make sure one person doesn’t dominate the dialogue by creating opportunities for everyone to share their views. Also, make it clear that interrupting and talking over each other are not acceptable debate tactics. If you notice a hot-headed team member getting into too many fights, help them understand the impact of this behaviour on their reputation and relationships.
Workplace arguments provide clues into what people consider important and how they feel at a given point in time. Managed properly, they have the potential to spark new thinking, create excitement, and determine the direction in which your team grows. To get a sense of this bigger picture, leaders can ask themselves the following questions, posed by Schrage:
- Are you having the kind of most important argument you want your organization to have?
- Are you having the right kind of arguments in general?
- Are your arguments illuminating the path forward or providing the organizations with even better rationalizations and excuses for inaction?
As always, I look forward to your thoughts.