In the three decades I’ve been in the world of employment, I’ve only ever had disciplinary action taken against me once. And that was for disagreeing with a colleague. I was right to do so. It just so happened that I did it in front of a client and the client agreed with me. Not surprising really because I was trying to make sure they had the most effective solution.

My colleague was raging and had her vengeance by making a formal complaint against me. The company was legally bound to take her seriously and I had to sit through a farcical session with my direct boss and a stooge from HR.

They agreed that I had done the right thing but couldn’t be seen to publicly support my behaviour.

Like most big organisations, this one was averse to conflict. This process was its over-active corporate immune system attacking something it perceived as a threat.

Employees who question and challenge are often labeled as troublemakers

To be fair, most organisations are the same. They’d rather avoid conflict than use it constructively. The employees who question and challenge are often labeled as troublemakers. Their suggestions for improvement are seen as shit-stirring obstructiveness. So they are leaned upon until they either stop trying or leave. That’s terrible because these individuals tend to be the most talented ones.

This is one of the main reasons large organisations are struggling to keep up with the world. They don’t want to be challenged. So they’re becoming increasingly irrelevant. That’s why many people believe one-third of businesses will be extinct in 10 years.

Companies need fresh ideas if they want to survive. They need to encourage their staff – who know their business best – to share their thoughts. Probably the most effective way to do that is to stop eliminating conflict and start harnessing it for the good of the business.

Stop eliminating conflict and start harnessing it for the good of the businessClick To Tweet


Let’s define positive conflict

We’re not defending complainers, backstabbers and arseholes

We need to get something clear from the start – we’re talking about positive conflict here. We’re not defending complainers, backstabbers and arseholes. Instead, we’re championing the people who spot things that can be improved, suggest new ways of doing things, come up with ideas that make people feel uncomfortable and question the stuff that companies do because they’ve always done it. However, as part of their efforts to drive the business forward and make things better, they often come up against resistance. That creates conflict that – if it’s handled correctly – can lead to better approaches, new opportunities and a stronger business. If handled badly (which is the default approach) it leads to stagnation and an exodus of talent.

Diversity can help if you let it

Most of the time the riches diversity offers are stifled by inflexible processes

With lots of companies trying to hit diversity targets, we’re getting a broader range of opinions, points of view and knowledge in the workplace. These can be fantastic assets if the organisations allow them to be. But most of the time the riches diversity offers are stifled by inflexible processes, a conservative culture and – the subject of this article – a fear of conflict. Most companies simply don’t support diversity of thought. Or as we call it: divergency. They turn every employee into the equivalent of a straight, white, middle-class, university-educated, male, conservative drone – regardless of how much melanin, oestrogen or limbs they have. At the very best, the organisation might successfully complete their sticker album of minorities but they’ll entirely miss out on the real value of their diverse workforce.

Why organisations resist conflict

Organisations are set up like manufacturing production lines – especially the big ones. They’re focused on control, predictability and efficiency. When a production line doesn’t change, it’s easier to make little adjustments to get it running at maximum efficiency. It’s harder to do this when the variables are constantly changing.

But that’s the business environment we operate in today. Managing a business is more like trying to tune an engine while you’re driving off-road in a hostile environment without a map. Any business that refuses to respond to this turbulent habitat, will quickly lose their relevance, their customers and their revenue.

The key to happy conflicts

It all comes down to one thing: respect

You can find several pieces of advice online about how to have positive disagreements at work. But I think it all comes down to one thing: respect. Conflict only becomes a problem when people don’t respect each other. That’s when it leads to petty sniping, political crappiness and hurt feelings. And those hurt feelings lead to more petty sniping, political crappiness and damaged relationships in return.

And sadly, most organisations don’t have respectful cultures where people care about each other. Which is probably why most organisations see conflict as a danger. Because, in their case, it is.

Maybe this diagram makes things a bit clearer:

Because you’re conditioned to think that anything at the top of a business diagram is the optimal situation, you may look at this and think it’s best to be in the respectful agreement quadrant. It’s a nice place to be, admittedly. But it’s the second best option in this diagram. The very best quadrant is the respectful disagreement one because that’s where growth happens. That’s where two or more people work together to share their opinions, debate with each other and come to a stronger position than before. That’s where sub-optimal things are challenged and improved upon. That’s where organisations get real value from their staff.

If you don’t agree, I’d advise you to stop reading now and go and find something less challenging and helpful to read.

If you do agree, let’s take a look at how you can build a more respectful environment where positive conflict can thrive.

Explain what constructive dissent is

First and foremost, you need to help people understand the importance of respectful disagreement. If they can grasp the value it offers the company, they’re more likely to give it a go. But they must understand the difference between good conflict and petty sniping. It’s not just about pointing at something and criticising it, it’s about suggesting better ways of doing things. And it’s preferably backed up by facts or solid thinking.

Understand the difference between good conflict and petty sniping

There also needs to be a clear separation of people and their actions. It’s not about criticising individuals, it’s about suggesting better ways of doing things. Which means when someone is suggesting a better way that you can do something, you should try not to take it personally (although it can often be hard).

Make these points clear. Then make them clear again. And again. In fact, don’t stop because people will always need reminding.

Bake it into the culture

This isn’t something that only certain people should do. Your entire organisation should have a culture of respect.

This isn’t something that happens all by itself. If you’re hands-off and passive about it, it shows you don’t care about your staff. And, therefore, you’re not giving them the respect they deserve.

Respectful disagreement should begin with the CEO

Just like soaping yourself up in the shower, culture should start at the top and trickle down. Respectful disagreement should begin with the CEO. Or at the very least, a department head. These leaders need to demonstrate that they welcome other people’s opinions and value the individuals brave enough to offer them. This is the only way to truly make it part of the fabric of the company.

Publicly reward people

If you embrace constructive dissent you’re guaranteed to get some different outcomes. And better outcomes.

You now need to encourage this behaviour by thanking the people who sparked these different results. Being the first ones to stand up and share their opinions takes bravery and you need to show the more timid employees that there’s nothing to be afraid of. In fact, you need to show them that sharing your thoughts is preferable to keeping them to yourself. If you publicly show that you value the people who are brave enough to make a stand, more people will do it.

This isn’t an open door for personal grudges and gripes

On the flip-side, you also need to take action against negative dissent. As much as you’ll already have made it clear that this isn’t an open door for personal grudges and gripes, some people will still fall into this hole. Especially if they feel downtrodden and powerless. You need to nip this behaviour in the bud right away and reinforce the need for respect. If you don’t, you’ll just encourage more bitches to crawl out of the shadows and do more harm to your organisation.

Give people the right training

You’ll probably struggle to find training on respectful disagreement. That’s mainly because not many people talk about it or see the value of it in their business. You could always create your own programme. Or you could speak to someone like me about putting a programme together for you.

But a good start is to make sure people have the important skills they need: critical thinking, communication and leadership skills. And, of course, conflict resolution skills. Investing in this kind of training also sends the message that you’re serious about this. And that you respect and trust your employees.

Build it into your process

If your organisation is one that loves its routines and structure, it may help to add critical sessions into your processes.

It may help to add critical sessions into your processes

These are scheduled times when people can – and should – give honest feedback. You need to make sure that everyone understands their job is to make things better rather than just pick holes. If people understand that’s the focus of the session, they’ll tend to move towards that purpose.

As well as doing this on individual jobs, you should also regularly challenge the core assumptions of the business. If you encourage people to come up with better ways of doing things, there’s more chance of them doing that than if you don’t. Obvious, isn’t it?

Don’t turn it into a set of rules

The natural way that a lot of companies will try to approach this is to turn it into a set of rules. But that’s probably not the best approach. Rules just lead to pettiness and conservatism. And if you’re wanting to encourage people to question everything, you probably shouldn’t give them more things to question.

Rules just lead to pettiness and conservatism

It’s much better to create a culture and a set of understandings than a bunch of laws. This is about human interaction after all. And people don’t tend to follow a set of rules about how they interact with other humans outside the office.

Build an environment where people can be respectful. And then trust them to do that. If they do it wrong, re-educate them. If they refuse to correct their behaviour, discipline them. But remember this is about respect. And there’s no better way of demonstrating that than trusting your employees.

All you need is respect. But that's easier said than done.Click To Tweet

As you can see, it’s pretty simple. All you need is respect. But that’s easier said than done.

As Aran Rees often says, “it’s hard not complicated”. I totally agree.

Which really annoys me. I’d rather disagree with full respect. BirssDiversity & Divergencybitching,conflict,culture,disagree,discipline,dissent,diversity,organisations,process,reward,rules,sniping,training
In the three decades I’ve been in the world of employment, I’ve only ever had disciplinary action taken against me once. And that was for disagreeing with a colleague. I was right to do so. It just so happened that I did it in front of a client and the client...
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Dave Birss
Founder and Editor at
Dave is obsessed with creativity. He's been a musician, illustrator, stand-up comedian, poet, radio DJ, television presenter and advertising creative director. He also wrote A User Guide to the Creative Mind.
Now he runs Open for Ideas and helps individuals and companies become more creative.
You can find him speaking at conferences all over the world. And sharing his thinking in boardrooms, universities and dimly-lit pubs.