How workplace conflict can help your firm

I have nothing against harmony, but I believe some boats should be rocked.

Four professionals engaged in a lively discussion around a meeting table with laptops, pens, and notebooks, reflecting a collaborative conflict in a workplace setting.

In her TED talk ‘Dare To Disagree’, author Margaret Heffernan noted that for good ideas and true innovation, you need human interaction, conflict, argument, and debate.

But, while you’ll find many videos and articles about the benefits of interaction, there is far less content about how to channel workplace conflict into productive discussions that drive growth and progress.  

Rather than hide arguments and negative feelings beneath a veneer of corporate politeness, here is how to turn arguments into growth opportunities.

Conflict breeds creativity

When we challenge each other, we eventually end up thinking outside the box. We often think creativity comes from peaceful moments and a healthy muse. In his book ‘Math with Bad Drawings’, author Ben Orlin observed that “Creativity is what happens when a mind encounters an obstacle.” When we encounter resistance from our colleagues, we tend to run from it or pretend it doesn’t exist. 

But when we acknowledge it and deal with it, we have the chance to hear different perspectives and opinions. If everyone has a collaborative mindset, rather than a combative one, we can discuss these divergences from the common opinion and arrive at mutual agreement or, in some cases, insightful solutions. As Evros Psiloyenis pointed out, “The best CEO has sparring partners to keep him sharp.”

Do you truly understand?

According to Grammarly’s 2023 State of Business Communication report, bad communication can cost US businesses up to $1.2 trillion USD a year, or $12,506 USD per employee annually.

While we’re communicating more than ever before, the quality of our communication has declined. We deal with information silos, misinterpreted tone or meaning, poor word choice, and other communication maladies.

It’s easy to believe that we’ve understood the other person correctly, but it’s best to pause and clarify so there is no doubt on either side.

Caring isn’t always calm

I gained enormous insight recently when CPA Jason Blumer commented on one of my firm’s LinkedIn posts about team accountability. He said, “Teams who feel responsible for their role are great assets.”

This stuck out to me as I was thinking about the idea of workplace conflict. When we care deeply about something, we have opinions about how success can be achieved. When opinions differ, arguments are inevitable. But arguments don’t have to mean your team is divided.

How to argue and remain united

Good teams are like orchestras —high-powered, high-performing, and well-synchronized. Despite this, disagreements can arise among team members and musicians.

Here are some tips for persevering and surviving difficult discussions:

1. Create a safe space for differing opinions

As a leader, we set the tone for how our teams react and respond to differences of opinion. If you condemn or deride perspectives that go against your own, your team will react the same way to ideas that differ from their own. But, if you lead by example, you’ll have a team that’s primed to explore new ideas without bias, opening your firm up to innovation and creative problem solving. 

2. Engage mavericks in open-minded discussions

Strong leaders guide their teams in a single direction, uniting and rallying them through uncertain times. When team members disagree with a chosen process or the firm’s direction, it’s easy to squash it in the name of keeping the peace. But it’s critical to maintain connection with them since synergistic success only comes when you and your team are united. 

Ask people with different opinions about their reasons for disagreeing, solicit their recommendations, and work on a plan for testing their ideas. A simple example is if they don’t like long meetings, see how you can experiment with shorter ones.

3. Address toxic conflict early and quickly

If team arguments are causing productivity to decline, hostile relationships to form, or resentment to build, you must address it quickly and effectively. Identify the root cause of discontentment in your team and take action to resolve it so you can restore unity. 

As more employers continue to struggle to attract talent, keeping good talent united is key to staff retention. 

Firms that fight together stay together

One of your many roles as a leader is to create a safe and encouraging environment where disagreements are not just tolerated but celebrated as opportunities for learning and improvement. 

Good workplace culture doesn’t mean you don’t fight. Rather, it means that you fight together toward a common goal: company growth. With this mindset, your accounting firm will not only withstand internal debates but thrive because of them.