You need to know three things about me to fully appreciate this topic:

  1. I love conflict.
  2. I don’t shy away from disagreements.
  3. I’m a woman in business.

From those three succinct statements, you probably formed an impression of me. Your impression might be really favorable or quite off-putting depending on how you interpret the statements. I started off a recent workshop on productive conflict by stating “I love conflict” and heard some nervous laughter from the audience, which was mostly male. I knew there were some differing impressions in the room.

But regardless of your (or their) impressions, you’re missing some important context.

Conflict, in and of itself, is not a bad thing.

Many businesswomen are conditioned to believe that conflict spells disaster for a relationship. This is why a lot of women in business try to avoid it at all costs. The practice of avoidance is called appeasement and it doesn’t work in the long run (check your world history). In fact, it often creates an explosive moment of intense conflict when the appeasing party finally says, “Enough is enough!”

Those explosive moments aren’t the kind of conflict I love. They aren’t healthy and that kind of conflict is never productive. It’s reactive, personal, and aggressive.

Productive conflict leaves no room for personal attacks or vindictive posturing.

It focuses on the root issue between two parties, and THAT’S the kind of conflict I love.

Productive conflict actually builds stronger relationships. It doesn’t break them down. It may be hard to believe at first, but let me help you get there. Think about this other important piece of context:

Disagreements aren’t always about problems.

When two people don’t agree on something, it doesn’t mean that the resulting discussion – or conflict – is inherently about a problem. It’s about an issue. Now that may seem like verbal trickery at first, but let me explain.

  • Problems have a negative root cause. They usually result from behaviors that have a negative effect on the business or relationship.  
  • Issues can be about negative behaviors, but they can also be about differences of opinion that have a positive root – like different ideas about how to grow the business.

Disagreeing with someone about how to grow your business is actually a great issue to have. It means you’re both thinking ahead. Disagreeing about problems in your business holds you back.

Never make disagreements about problems. Reframe them around a issues that have a positive root.

When I say I don’t shy away from disagreements, I mean I invite differing opinions about an issue. I don’t argue about problems.

The last piece of context might seem a little polarizing, but there’s a purpose to it.

Being a Woman in Business Actually Gives You an Advantage.

When conflict arises, a lot of men puff their chests, raise their voices, and posture up in an effort to dominate the other party. Don’t believe me? Watch any nature show and you’ll see that males of almost every species have an instinct to protect themselves, their territory, their family, or anything of value. Or you can read about this study.

In business, it’s no different. I’m sure you’ve seen or witnessed a heated exchange between two men with differing opinions. In those situations, one party usually looks to dominate and win while the other tries to protect something of value to him – perhaps an opinion or idea. They might shake hands when all is said and done, but there’s definitely an aggressive edge when they’re in the midst of conflict.

And it’s not necessarily a bad thing. There are times when you want that level of competitive drive to show itself. When it comes to having productive conflict, though, combativeness mixed with aggression isn’t a recipe for success.

Women tend to start with an advantage here. Emotionally intelligent women are usually able to tame their outward aggression and combativeness better than men. This means we have the ability to slow things down when conflict arises, and this is a major key to having productive conflict. If you seek to dominate when conflict comes, you won’t listen for understanding and you’ll focus on your need to win or be right. You’ll resort to finger pointing and personal attacks, and your team will feel the stress. It will splash onto them, and that’s devastative to productivity and morale.

When you slow down and identify the issue first, you’ll be able to more effectively communicate your opinion, listen to others, and de-personalize the conflict.

It is also important that you state your position one time and not over and over again. The same rule applies for anyone else engaged in the discussion. People who repeat the same point are trying to push their influence on the group. That’s not helpful or healthy, so monitor yourself and your team for that behavior. If it occurs, call it out respectfully and let the offending party know they’ve been heard. And then move on.

Finally (and this is where men do a really good job after conflict occurs), it is critical to publicly declare the root issue as solved for all time once the conflict is over.

Studies have shown that men recover from conflict faster than women, so we need to work on not harboring ill will or hurt feelings once the conflict is over. If we’ve had productive conflict, however, feelings shouldn’t play a major part in the outcome since we should be dealing with a root issue and not the presenting problem.

The Right Context

Now that you have more informed context around the three statements I made at the beginning of this article, I’m hoping your impression of me has changed – for the better.

Productive conflict is a valuable practice for your company’s culture. It can actually help build relationships when it is done well. To successfully implement a culture of productive conflict you have to:

  1. Slow down when conflict arises – don’t just try to dominate.
  2. Identify the root issue – it’s not always the “problem”.
  3. Express your opinion one time and listen to input from others.
  4. Publicly declare the issue solved for all time.

Building a culture where productive conflict exists isn’t a male or female thing. Any business leader is capable of implementing it into their culture. As a woman in business, though, I know how tough it can be for us to effectively handle conflict from a leadership perspective.

I’m proud to be an advocate for productive conflict, a welcomer of issue-driven disagreement, and a champion for anyone (male or female) who wants to be a better business leader. If you’re in alignment with me, I invite you to check out some of the programs we offer to help develop healthier business cultures and teams.