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  • Tamar Balkin

Can Disagreements At Work Ever Be Good?

"Now we got problems And I don't think we can solve 'em You made a really deep cut And baby, now we got bad blood (hey!)”

Bad Blood by Taylor swift (click here for the music)

Photo by Richard Lee on Unsplash

“the strategic decisions over the last two years have been sub optimal, it seems no one is debating anything it's all about a quick consensus.. I worry about the future of our firm and business in general”

current client

What is conflict?

“Life is very short, and there's no time For fussing and fighting, my friend I have always thought that it's a crime.. We can work it out”

We Can Work It Out by the Beetles (click here for the music)

Researchers differentiate between the types of conflict. Internal conflict can lead to cognitive dissonance when one’s actions do not align with one’s values and beliefs. Leaders with high Self-awareness will use this discomfort as a signal to evaluate their actions and beliefs in more detail. An external conflict involves more than one indi­vidual and usually takes the form of a disagreement. It could be a disagreement over a specific issue, objective, goal, or a plan to best accomplish a task. The individuals may agree on the end result sought, but disagree on the strategy and steps needed to achieve that result. This is often referred to as a substantive conflict. An emotional conflict often involves incompatible personalities. We find someone’s perfume objectionable, or we do not appreciate someone chewing gum while speaking, or without realising it, we feel jealous of or intimidated by a colleague. Healthy conflict is characterised by the exchange of diverse ideas and the honest arguments for and against the merits of those ideas.

What are the negative ramifications of conflict ?

“Despite healthcare workers being hailed as heroes during the pandemic, we found a positive association between the local COVID-19 case rate and the rate of patient violence incidents in our ED through EMR review”

McGuire, Gazley, Majerus, Mullan, and Clements

Researchers have found that high levels of disagreement can stifle knowledge sharing by creating barriers in communication harming interpersonal understanding or producing emotional conflicts. Excessive disagreement within teams is likely to destroy the mutual trust and cooperation that is needed for effective knowledge sharing.

“for what ever reason, once started conflict can have a life of its own”

Dipboye, R.L., Smith, C.S. and William Carl Howell

There is evidence to indicate that if left unchecked, conflict can take the form of a vicious cycle that spirals out of control. In these situations, cognitive biases become exacerbated, each party will attribute the actions of the other to inherent personality flaws, fighting becomes a normal way of life and communication declines. Regular readers would be aware that the best way to end inappropriate conflict may be forgiveness, rather than resentment, although this is easier said than done. (click here for my blog on forgiveness)

“In other words, under the supervision of the organizational service rules, employees would be in fear of taking the organizational punishment and dare not to directly carry out reactive aggression toward customers. Instead, they might change the target of attack and turn to the innocent people around them, such as their coworkers, as such displaced aggression oriented toward coworkers is formed.”

Liu, F., Chen, G. and Liu, Y.

Sometimes it appears that the team are reacting well to a contentious situation yet there may be an undercurrent of anger and rumination. Researchers have found that emotional displacement involves directing intensely uncomfortable experiences toward a ‘safer target’. In addition, the more a person ruminates about a disagreement the more likely that a minor annoyance will trigger displaced aggression.


The real problem is that instead of a relentless focus on pertinent facts, we have been overwhelmed by a postmodern focus on assumed motives and individual truths. Statements typically are judged against a preferred narrative rather than against the verifiable facts.

That is anti-science, anti-intellectual and anti-truth. But how to fix it when debates are occurring in increasingly disconnected silos?

Chris Kenny The Australian February 18, 2022


Why do we need disagreements in the workplace?

“No, you can't always get what you want You can't always get what you want You can't always get what you want But if you try sometime you'll find You get what you need”

You Can't Always Get What You Want by Keith Richards / Mick Jagger

(click here for the music)

Researchers have found that even though there is desire towards group cohesion in all teams, stability is not necessarily beneficial in the context of complex decision making with controversial information. It has been suggested that many mergers and acquisitions fail because of a fear of conflict and a lack of healthy debate.

Regular readers would be aware of the phenomenon called ‘group think’ where by a highly cohesive group, often with a dynamic leader considers only one aspect of a complex problem. The more secure and optimistic the group feels about their ability, the less likely individuals will voice their doubts. Thus dissenting opinions are rarely expressed often with devastating consequences.

Researchers have found that suppressing conflict in teams has the following ramifications:

  • Reduction in individual creativity

  • Poor quality decisions

  • Increased risk

  • Declining trust

  • Less transparency

  • Reluctance to report errors

  • Fabrication

  • Incivility

  • Gossip

  • Demoralisation

  • Disruption to services

“Organisations could suffer if they stifled the voices of their employees because this can lead to frustration, disengagement and job resignations. Mature leadership is needed to encourage healthy dissent.”

Professor Connson Locke

Can a leader cultivate healthy debate?

“You are on a team and you need to make a decision. You should disagree; you should argue. You should have diverse thoughts and share diverse experiences so people can bring their particular expertise and insights to the table…”

Fisher Turesky, Smith, & Turesky

Regular readers would know that creating a culture that is non-judgmental and characterised by psychological safety will enhance openness in the workplace. However, people often self-censor ideas that conflict with the leaders. They fear being seen as a troublemaker, ignorant or a time waster and so they keep their ideas to themselves.

The following tips enable the leader to facilitate respectful conflict and encourage diverse ideas.

  • Keep it about logic, and the topic at hand

  • Distinguish between facts and interpretations

  • Identify logical fallacies, and rewind

  • Check the validity of assertions of fact

  • Asses the quality of the evidence

  • Be curious – ask genuine open questions that challenge assumptions

  • Admit when you realise you’re wrong

  • Cheerfully concede when others have good points

  • Ask directly for multiple alternative views

  • Question assumptions

  • Share and idea and ask how it will fail

  • Be transparent about the value of disagreement

  • Debate the issue not the person

  • Don’t let people ramble

A skilled leader never assumes everyone has reacted in the same way to an intense debate. It is worthwhile at the conclusion of a heated discussion to take the time and energy to build rapport amongst the team.

The last few years have been characterised by increasing uncertainty, often leaders will exercise control to manage complexity. Researchers have found that leaders with this predisposition may be less open to debate and to generating and evaluating a variety of options when a new problem arises.

"everyone is checking emails and messages while we are in on line meetings, it’s really efficient. You could never get away with it face to face .. it would seem rude”


Regular readers would be aware that electronic communication can be more stilted than face to face conversations, especially when there is more than one person on the call. Researchers have found that managing disagreements tends to be more difficult virtually than in-person. Regular readers would be aware that common sense and manners go a long way to minimising the likelihood of stifling debate or causing undue conflict in all types of virtual and in person interactions (click here for my blog on manners).

"Don't hold a grudge or a chip and here's why Bitterness keeps you from flyin' Always stay humble and kind"

Humble and Kind by Tim McGraw (click here for the music)


References: McGuire, S.S., Gazley, B., Majerus, A.C., Mullan, A.F. and Clements, C.M. (2021). Impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on workplace violence at an academic emergency department. The American Journal of Emergency Medicine. Snow, S. (2019). How to Debate Ideas Productively at Work. [online] Harvard Business Review. Available at: Liu, F., Chen, G. and Liu, Y. (2020). The Impact of Customer Mistreatment on Employee Displaced Aggression: The Moderating Effect of Interpersonal Sensitivity and Moral Identity. Frontiers in Psychology, 11. Bushman, B. J., Bonacci, A. M., Pedersen, W C., Vasquez, E. A., & Miller, N. (2005). Chewing on it can chew you up: Effects of rumination on triggered displaced aggression. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 88, 969-983. (n.d.). How To Think More Critically. [online] Available at: [Accessed 16 Feb. 2022]. Markoff, E.S. (2019). Criando uma infraestrutura para o bom conflito. Revista de Gestão e Projetos, 10(3), pp.135–140. Daum, K. (2015). 7 Ways Amazing Leaders Encourage Healthy Debate. [online] Available at: [Accessed 16 Sep. 2019]. Trudel, Jeannie 1964-, "Workplace incivility : relationship with conflict management styles and impact on perceived job performance, organizational commitment and turnover." (2009). Electronic Theses and Dissertations. Paper 1460. Dipboye, R.L., Smith, C.S. and William Carl Howell (1994). Understanding industrial and organizational psychology : an integrated approach. Fort Worth, Texas: Harcourt Brace College. ‌ Forgas, J.P. (1985). Interpersonal behaviour the psychology of social interactions. Frankfurt [I.E. Kronberg/Taunus] Pergamon Press. Patty, A. (2021). Have we lost the ability to speak up and disagree with the boss? [online] The Sydney Morning Herald. Available at: [Accessed 22 Feb. 2022]. Turesky, E.F., Smith, C.D. and Turesky, T.K. (2020). A call to action for virtual team leaders: practitioner perspectives on trust, conflict and the need for organizational support. Organization Management Journal, ahead-of-print(ahead-of-print). (2021). [online] Available at: van Woerkom, M. and Sanders, K. (2009). The Romance of Learning from Disagreement. The Effect of Cohesiveness and Disagreement on Knowledge Sharing Behavior and Individual Performance Within Teams. Journal of Business and Psychology, 25(1), pp.139–149. Ou, Z., Chen, T., Li, F. and Tang, P. (2018). Constructive controversy and creative process engagement: The roles of positive conflict value, cognitive flexibility, and psychological safety. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 48(2), pp.101–113. (n.d.). Displaced Anger: One Destructive Way We Disavow Anger | Psychology Today Australia. [online] Available at:

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