Is Conflict at Work Ever a Good Thing?

Many people assume that conflict in the workplace is always bad. But I think there are times when conflict is good—because if everybody always has the same opinion about everything, somebody’s not needed around here!

I love to gather a team around me where people have different opinions and feel free to disagree with each other about things. Why?  Because in this way, one plus one can equal about ten, if people share different points of view. One of my favorite phrases is “No one of us is as smart as all of us” and that especially rings true when you have people around you who aren’t afraid to give you their opinion on something. Everyone can work together for the greater good. So it’s healthy to encourage a little conflict or difference of opinion at work, as long as it’s constructive.

If some people on your team have personality conflicts and are just causing trouble and drama, that’s a different story. That’s a problem you may need to deal with as a leader. But generally speaking, if you encourage different opinions, you can learn what everyone is thinking and work out the best decision for the team as a whole. You don’t want a bunch of “yes” people around you or it may lead you down the wrong road.

My father, who was an admiral in the navy, used to tell me, “Ken, if you don’t hear complaining from your people, watch out because it means there’s going to be a mutiny!”  If you aren’t hearing about concerns and conflicts, it may be because your people have cut you off from the channels of communication. You need to know about those things and encourage that kind of sharing. Let your people know that they can have a different opinion and still survive around you, because you are open to hearing their ideas. It will benefit your team and, ultimately, your entire organization.

I try to be a leader but it seems no one is listening to me

This is a tough question that especially haunts younger leaders…

If you think you’re a leader and you turn around and nobody’s following, you know what? There’s probably some feedback there that you can learn from. Why aren’t they following?  Because your leadership might be all about you. People want to follow someone who appreciates and cares about them, who thinks they are important. Are you involving your people? That’s what they want. They want to work with somebody who wants to work with them. If nobody’s following you, stop looking in the mirror and thinking that leadership is all about you. No—it’s out there. It’s with them. It’s encouraging them and supporting them and helping them and involving them. People love to follow leaders who share the responsibility of accomplishing goals.  So look out there at your people. That’s where the action is. And if you take care of them, you know what? Next time you turn around, there might be a crowd.

Should You Reprimand or Should You Redirect?

Before you give a reprimand—think!  In many cases an employee needs to be redirected rather than reprimanded. In today’s workplace with constant changes in technology, people are continuously learning new skills. With all that learning, mistakes are bound to occur. For this reason, generally speaking, the need for redirection is much more prevalent today than the need for reprimands.

Use the following “decision tree” to help you determine whether an employee’s misstep in behavior or performance should lead to a reprimand or a redirection.

When someone does something wrong, first ask yourself, “Should this person have known better?”


·       If the answer is “No,” then the person is obviously unfamiliar with his or her assigned responsibility or task and still in a learning stage, and needs redirection. Never reprimand a learner—whether it’s a new hire learning the ropes, an experienced employee working on a new task, or your daughter learning to tie her shoelaces.  It will only cause confusion or outright discouragement.  In this instance, your role as a leader is to help, or redirect, the person who is having a problem. The five steps of an effective redirection are:

1.    Give the redirection as soon as possible after the problem happens. Prompt feedback is very important.

2.    Explain specifically what went wrong and how it could affect others.

3.    Take on a bit of the responsibility by saying something such as, “I must not have made it clear enough…” This reduces the pressure on the employee who is simply in need of supportive redirection.

4.    Reiterate the importance of the task.

5.    Reassure the person you still have confidence in him to help him move toward success on the task. The purpose of redirection is to set up, as soon as possible, an opportunity for a praising to occur.


·       If the answer is “Yes,” and you believe the person should have known better, then you must ask yourself, “Did this person make the mistake deliberately or because of a lack of confidence?” Remember—only reprimand deliberate behavior or unusual regressive performance of a normally strong performer.

  • If the problem revolves around a lack of confidence, try to determine the reason.  It could be that a new situation exists that is unsettling to a seasoned worker. For example, perhaps Brad, an experienced cashier, makes many errors on the new cash register.  The reason is most likely a lack of confidence due to a change from the familiar.  Brad doesn’t need a reprimand; rather, he needs training and practice on the new register, coupled with support from an understanding boss.  Reprimands have no place in this example.
  • If you have good reason to believe the person purposely did something wrong, or if the person’s typical good performance is continuously and obviously declining, a reprimand may be appropriate. If you deliver the reprimand with “caring candor,” a phrase coined by Garry Ridge, President and CEO of WD-40 Company, it can be a powerful motivator for a high performer whose recent goal achievement is not up to normal high standards.  Remember these four steps when you must reprimand an individual:

1.    As with a redirection, deliver the reprimand in a timely manner—as soon as the unusual poor performance or behavior is detected. A reprimand should never be saved for an annual performance review.

2.    Be specific about what was done incorrectly and the impact it could have on you or others; i.e., “You didn’t turn in your weekly report on time. When I don’t get reports from all our team members, I can’t do a complete analysis for my Monday leadership meeting.”

3.    Share your exact feelings about the situation—frustration, disappointment, surprise, etc.

4.    Finish by reaffirming the person’s past performance and letting her know the reprimand is not about her as a person, but about her behavior or actions. “This upsets me because it’s so unlike you. You’re one of my best people and you usually get your reports in on time.” This last step is very important because you want the person to walk away thinking about what she did wrong, not about how poorly you treated her.


Above all, remember to catch your people doing something right and praise them at every opportunity. You will be making deposits in the bank of goodwill, so that if you occasionally need to make a withdrawal via a redirection or reprimand, the sting will be short-lived and the employee will be that much more motivated toward high achievement.

How to Evaluate Your Leadership Style

Today, I’m going to give a short, one-question quiz.  Here’s the question:  How do you rate as a leader?

I don’t ask this question flippantly.  It is a question I’ve asked countless people at the leadership seminars we conduct.

As leaders, most people rank themselves as being very close to a minor deity or at least Mr. or Ms. Human Relations.  Seldom do leaders give themselves low marks. Strangely enough, when the tables are turned and people are asked to rank their boss’s leadership style, we often find many supervisors graded as being adequate, merely OK, or at worst, office autocrats who depend heavily on the often-referenced “seagull management” technique as their sole line of attack—they leave their people alone until something goes wrong, and then they fly in, make a lot of noise, dump all over everyone, and fly out.

More often than not, we find that leaders lull themselves into thinking they are top-flight leaders because they think they use a supportive or coaching style, which someone told them are “good” leadership styles.  Not too surprisingly, this isn’t the way they are seen by those in their department, office or store.

To get a true and accurate answer about the question above, it is necessary for you as a supervisor to honestly determine how your employees perceive your leadership style. These are the folks who know you best.  They have first-hand experience with your leadership style and operate on their own perceptions about it.  They are the best judges of your managerial effectiveness. However, getting an employee or subordinate to give his or her honest feedback on your leadership style is difficult.  People fear being the messenger who will get shot for bearing bad news.  Hence, they are naturally reluctant to be totally candid.

Employees are sharp observers.  In the past, they may have gone to their leader and made an honest suggestion such as, “Ken, I think our Thursday afternoon meetings are a waste of time.”  If the supervisor answers with an outburst by saying, “What do you mean a waste of time?  Are you kidding? Those meetings are important,” it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that one thing the leader doesn’t want to hear is the truth.

It is important to remember that when people you supervise tell you what they honestly think about your style of leadership, they’re really giving you a gift.  When someone gives you a gift, what is the first thing you should say?  “Thank you,” of course!  Then it’s a very good idea to follow up by saying, “Is there anything else you think I should know?”  When a person learns that you won’t become defensive or hostile when he or she gives you an honest evaluation about your style, you’ll find that you’ll be given many nuggets of truth which are extremely valuable.  My advice would be to encourage people to give (feedback) at the office, and to give often!

Just remember, what you think about your own leadership style really doesn’t matter.  In addition, there is no one correct style, nor is there a “good” or a “bad” style.  Rather, style is judged by those immediately influenced by it.  It’s your people’s response to your style that matters.  If you are getting the right response consistently—high productivity and morale—then you’re doing just fine.  If not, then perhaps it’s your style that needs changing, not your employees.

Feedback is Great Motivation

If you went around your office and asked each person, “Are you doing a good job?” what would be the answer?  Would most people respond by saying either “I don’t know” or “I think so”?  And if their answer was, “Yes, I think so,” and your follow-up question was, “How do you know?” would you hear lines such as, “I haven’t been chewed out by my boss lately” or “No news is good news”?

Such answers reveal that most people receive little feedback on their performance until they make a mistake. This is a sad state of affairs. People need feedback on their performance to feel motivated to move toward their goals.  Managers know what they want their people to do but many times don’t bother to tell them because they assume people know. This leads to the most commonly used management style in business, often referred to as seagull management. When someone makes a mistake, seagull managers fly in, make a lot of noise, dump on everyone, and fly out. Since this is the predominant style of management in organizations, it is no wonder that motivating people is a major organizational problem today!

Can you imagine training for the Olympics with no one telling you how fast you ran or how high you jumped?  The idea seems ludicrous, yet many people operate in a vacuum in organizations, not knowing how well they are doing on their jobs. This can lead to what we call decommitment—a change in an employee’s motivation or confidence—which can be one of the biggest challenges managers face.

To avoid this situation as a manager, stop and think about how you would answer the following questions:  Are your department and organizational goals clear?  Do you talk to your people about performance expectations?  Does every person know what a good job looks like? Is anything getting in the way of performance?  Are you giving each person regular feedback on his or her performance and behavior?

I often repeat the words of my former colleague Rick Tate, who said, “Feedback is the breakfast of champions.”  Letting your people know where they stand and how they are doing can help nurture genuine relationships and create job satisfaction all around.