The Value of Workplace Conflict: Discomfort Says You’re Doing It Right

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Nov 19, 2013

There are several things that stall progress, but one that occurs a lot is the human tendency to avoid conflict.

It’s almost impossible for a team to make progress on something new, without raising, and working through at least some uncomfortable conflict.

If you are avoiding conflict, you are avoiding execution.

Many teams opt for a false sense of agreement and pleasant-ness instead, because it’s more comfortable.

Vague is comfortable

Imagine a team conversation:

We need to improve quality.” All the heads start nodding. Who would have a problem with that? Comfy.

Now imagine instead:

We need to improve quality so we are going to cancel these two programs, and use those funds to fix these 3 product problems, and offer these top 5 customers free on site support for 3 months while we make improvements.” Now, that is worthy of some disagreement!

If you stay at the comfortable, vague statement of high level goals, you can’t actually do anything. Everyone leaves the room agreeing it’s important, but there is no clear agreement on specifically what you are going to do differently (and where the resources will come from). So nothing moves forward.

Get comfortable with clarity …  and conflict

Clarity is the secret sauce for execution. You need to be comfortable with the fact that creating real clarity is going to expose disagreements. It’s going to be uncomfortable.

Have the debate. Work through the disagreements. Get specific.

Only when you get really clear, and actively resolve unanswered questions and lingering disagreements, will you be able to execute.

Without this level of clarity, when you don’t meet your goal, you can’t see or point to what is not working — you just know you didn’t get there.

Discomfort means you are doing it right

As I bring teams through this process of getting real clarity, taking the time to hear the opinions and debate, we reach a point where everyone can see what they need to do differently, specifically.

It becomes clear what everyone needs to do personally to achieve the big goal. Everyone leaves aligned, knowing exactly what is expected, and how they will be measured on what they do moving forward.

Here are some ideas for how to do create clarity and work though necessary conflict with your team:

Clarify the desired outcome

First you need to be really clear about the desired outcome. What is expected?


  • You need to break that big goal down clearly into smaller, concrete parts.
  • You need to be clear about who is responsible for each piece.
  • You need to be clear about how each piece is resourced.
  • You need to be clear about what doing something different in each case means to the old way of doing something.
  • You need to be clear about how the roles of specific people change.
  • You need to be clear about not only what the new tasks and deliverables are, but what are the new behaviors and values that are expected at each level in your organization.
  • You need to be clear about what skills are required and how you are going to get them.
  • If you have to hire or train people, you need to be clear about where that funding will come from and how long it will take.
  • You need to be clear about how the success of each task and role will be measured.
  • You need to be clear about what the consequences are for not doing the new thing.
  • You need to be clear about what will be communicated.

Go around the room

A final thing I do at this point in the process is to go around the room and ask each person to describe in their own words:

  • What we decided to do;
  • Why this is important;
  • What you will tell your team, specifically;
  • What you and your team will do differently as a result of this decision.

This ensures that everyone has internalized the decision and necessary actions, and gives them practice at talking about it in an aligned way amongst their peers. It also makes it clear that you expect them to talk about this with their teams and do something different!

Remove uncertainty

One of the most important things you can do as a leader is to remove uncertainty. It can feel uncomfortable to be so clear that it raises conflict.

Discussing the answer to all these kinds of questions out loud, with your team, although it opens the door to conflict and discomfort it is the only reliable way to move forward.

Otherwise you’ll still be talking about how important this thing is next year.

This was originally published on Patty Azzarello’s Business Leadership Blog. Her latest book is Rise: How to be Really Successful at Work and LIKE Your Life.