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Column | Leadership

Turning conflict into collaboration: How to manage workplace disagreements

Column | Leadership

Turning conflict into collaboration: How to manage workplace disagreements

  • Amid massive change that is affecting many traditional healthcare organizations, leaders can expect to deal with conflict increasingly often.
  • Leaders can mitigate conflict by putting change in the proper context for employees.
  • Avoiding common emotional triggers helps leaders stay composed and contain conflict.
  • Leaders can use conflict to foster collaboration, thereby turning conflict into a stimulus for positive change.

As their organizations make major adjustments to operations, healthcare leaders should be prepared for increased levels of workplace confl ict. Fortunately, taking the right approach can turn a confl ict into an impetus for positive change.

Healthcare organizations are experiencing change at a rapid pace as technological innovations and alternative payment models greatly impact operations — and people. As a leader, you can expect these changes to create workplace conflict. But you also should be assured that you can manage this conflict, and make it a productive rather than disruptive force, by using the following approaches.

1. Put change in the proper context

As author Britt Andreatta, PhD, explains in her book “Wired to Resist,” our brains are biologically wired to resist change. When organizational change happens, people personalize it and make it about themselves. They start to believe the change is happening to them, for them or against them.

As a leader, you should explain to staff that the change may feel personal because it affects how employees do their daily work, but that is not the main reason the organization is initiating change. Rather, the change is for the benefit of the organization.

You also should use empathy to understand how employees and teams are feeling, and acknowledge that change can be frustrating. Making employees feel that they are being seen and heard can de-escalate conflict that arises from change. This approach can help employees be more receptive to specific messaging and the overall change process.

Leaders should create a solid communication plan and, more importantly, execute it effectively. Delivering the right message — in the right medium, at the right time, by the right people — is critical. This messaging may look different from one organization to the next, so aligning it with your culture and your employees’ needs is key. Ask employees for suggestions.

In addition to digital communication, leaders can arrange casual town halls (make sure the size is manageable) as well as chats using internal social media outlets.

Doug McKinley
Lucy Zielinski

2. Keep emotions in check

When engaging in difficult conversations, the first part of managing conflict is managing your own temper, emotions and communication style. One key is to be aware of what your triggers are, meaning what you know will make you upset or lose your composure, and then work to deactivate those triggers. In other words, don’t give your power away to the conflict.

Here are some typical triggers.

Taking it personally. Leaders may take the conflict personally and react in a negative manner to protect themselves.

Making up stories. Leaders may jump to conclusions too quickly without asking questions.

Succumbing to the fight-or-flight syndrome. Leaders may not be aware of their emotions and either shy away from the conflict or attack aggressively.

Talking too much. Leaders don’t always take the time to listen and ask probing questions to understand and empathize.

Creating division. Leaders may band supporters together (for validation) and isolate resisters.

Once you're able to manage your own emotional responses, you can set your sights on dealing with other people's reactions.

3. Know what conflict entails

All too often, a person will start a conversation about point of conflict assuming the other person wants to resolve it, when the other person actually wants only to drive a specific agenda.

As a leader, you should understand that you can't control the outcome all the time. The natural inclination is to go into conflict looking to win, but conflict rarely, if ever, results in a win for one side or the other. The “win” is when all parties show up looking to constructively address hard issues and move the conversation forward.

For example, many organizations today are moving toward value-based payment, but they struggle with physician engagement ibn that context. They may be asking physicians to do more work for less pay under a value-based model — without providing a reasoned explanation about the long-term benefits to the organization.

Leaders should engage physicians as part of the transition at the outset. Resistance can be addressed early on, and physician leaders can be a part of the planning process and champion the change with their peers. 

4. Understand what constitutes a meaningful resolution

After you've learned to manage your own emotions and attend to others’ emotions, you should learn to change your fundamental thinking around conflict — understanding that conflict is not a bad thing. Strong leaders embrace conflict as an opportunity.

It may seem obvious that thinking in terms of wins and losses is not a sound approach to conflict management. However, even compromise is not a good conclusion. Instead, as in the case of incorporating physician leadership in an organizational transition to value-based payment, conflict should be viewed as the doorway to enhanced collaboration.

If you find that conflict in your workplace is not leading to better collaboration, that means your skill set is not fully optimized to create that outcome. You need to reset, acknowledge the change (and the conflict) and drive collaboration among all key stakeholders.

For example, leaders can effectively involve all stakeholders by asking questions such as:

  • Who are the key stakeholders? How will the change impact them?
  • What are potential areas of conflict? How can leaders address the conflict early?

The organization can provide leadership training to increase self-awareness and improve conflict management among key stakeholders. This training could include one-on-one coaching and 360-degree feedback. 

As organizations grapple with seismic change, nobody wants to stay in conflict. The path forward is to turn conflict into collaboration.

About the Authors

Doug McKinley, PsyD,

is owner of DLMPathways and is an author, coach and facilitator based in Chicago (

Lucy Zielinski

is a managing partner for Lumina Health Partners in Chicago (

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