Is it ever right to fight in the workplace?

01 December 2011 -


Do arguments in the workplace boost creativity or breed resentment? Kayleigh Ziolo weighs up the side effects of office confrontation

You know how it is: a seemingly innocuous conversation suddenly detours into contentious territory. Sensitivities on both sides are inflamed. Feathers are ruffled, hackles are raised… and lo and behold, the red mist descends. But is that crimson fog something worth diving into, exploring and even harnessing – or should it be dispelled as a matter of urgency before things take a turn for the worse?

Our experts set out the pros and cons of workplace friction.

“Yes, conflict can be healthy”

Lynne Eisaguirre, speaker, consultant and author of The Power of a Good Fight

Too often conflict is talked about as being dysfunctional. It is actually far more worrying to be without it. We need sparks to harness creativity and innovation, and conflict avoidance causes the most damage within an organisation. When it comes to arguments, it is easy to look to the aggressors as the problem, but more often it is those who try to please everyone or run from issues altogether that are causing debate. It is very rare that I see people skilfully using arguments to a collective advantage – they tend to fear it and thus avoid it. Conflict is reality and a part of life, and it is time we embraced this in a positive way.

When facing disagreements with a colleague, be sure to confront them early. That doesn’t mean pick a fight, it just means you should get things out in the open before it simmers and escalates into a problem that is near impossible to resolve. The longer we have an issue on our minds, the more it spirals out of control. We lose sight of the person we are in conflict with as a human being and they simply become a problem.

I think there is increased conflict in today’s offices. This is due to several factors: diversity has increased rapidly, and often rules and attitudes have not moved quite as quickly. People are looking to assert themselves and their rights, which is a positive thing, but it is not always plain sailing. There is also a vast age range in the workplace, with as many as four generations, all with different expectations and needs.

The way we communicate has changed. Email is good for facts, but when it comes to explanations it is better to have a face-to-face conversation. Facial expressions and tone of voice are very important when confronting an issue.

It is vital to recognise when a good fight goes bad. You need to learn how to engage in a good fight and when to walk away from a bad one. and it is a skill that can be learned. Many people think they do not have the capacity for conflict. The truth is we all just have different styles. But it’s not only about understanding the way in which you approach conflict yourself – you also need to understand other people’s ways of dealing with it. You should be as clear as possible about your needs. express your motives for taking that position. Once we start talking, we can achieve productive and creative resolutions.

“No, conflict is detrimental”

Jo Ouston, director of Jo Ouston & Co Career Coaching and Personal Presence and former CMI Head of Advisory Services

It is right to debate, but not right to bulldoze your opinions through the office. I think shows such as The Apprentice contribute to this negative idea of business being a self-aggrandising, shouting environment, where everyone is ruthless and those in authority yell at subordinates. I speak to many young people who are put off the idea of business because of negative images, which is very sad. Reality television presents people out for their own personal gain. I don’t believe this is the intention of The Apprentice – it’s down to the final editing – but, as a result, this damaging view is broadcast to millions of people.

When debate becomes less about championing your views and more about self-importance, that is when argument becomes unacceptable. To raise your voice just to assert authority is destructive and, in fact, gets you nowhere.

Whatever your cause or belief, your physical state is as important as your mental state. You cannot have a positive mental attitude unless you manage your physicality. in stressful situations, whether feeling passionate about something or in conflict, you can find that you tense up, with your energy rising to the top of your chest. This will make you look and feel less confident. Before presenting your arguments, make sure you lower your centre of gravity – either by relaxing physically or by breathing deeply. This increases the oxygen to your brain and enables you to think more quickly so that your words will be more cogent. The oxygen will also enhance your peripheral vision. This is vital: in a heightened stress state you can develop tunnel vision – they don’t call it narrow-mindedness for nothing – and you cannot see how everyone around you is reacting to what you say.

People who remain at a high centre of gravity are in fight mode – they become interested only in winning. A healthy balanced debate is indeed vital for business, to generate ideas and allow creativity. However, if people are only in it to make a point, those around them will realise this, and things will descend into conflict. A shouting match is never acceptable, and once you engage in one with a colleague, so much tension is created it is often difficult to restore relations.

You should be looking to achieve something. If you are not true to yourself, and only want to win the debate, you should step out of the arena.

What do you think?


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