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Resolving Cognitive Conflict in the Workplace

Pollack Peacebuilding by Jeremy Pollack

When two people are tasked to complete a project together, they may not always agree on how to get it done. Certainly group school projects have taught us all a thing or two about how challenging it can be to put your head together with someone who thinks, acts, prioritizes, organizes, and works differently than you. Cognitive conflict in the workplace, or conflict stemming from differing ideas on how to perform a task, can create a big dip in productivity, can cause deadlines to lapse, and can have damaging consequences on teamwork.

Addressing Cognitive Conflict in the Workplace

Cognitive conflict in the workplace can leave employees disagreeing over how to make a decision, what strategy is most appropriate for a particular project, or how to utilize resources. But negative impacts from this type of conflict don’t have to linger or harm your organization. In fact, new ideas and approaches can be born from this type of friction. To illustrate more by contrast, another type of team conflicts in the workplace is interpersonal in which the relationships between colleagues are weathered, fragile, or way too personal. Those types of conflict can be harder to repair than cognitive conflict – that’s the good news.

Celebrate Innovation

There is no one best way to handle employee conflict but establishing practices that help prevent it is certainly a worthwhile endeavor. Cultivating a company culture that celebrates diversity of ideas, out-of-the-box thinking, and innovative solutions can help decrease the odds of cognitive conflict in the workplace impacting your team. If it’s normalized to work with people who think differently – and even better, encouraged, people will learn to look for new growth and learning opportunities rather than the “right” or “wrong” way to accomplish things.

Improve Communication

While relational conflict can be harmful in the long-run because disputes become too personal, cognitive conflict in the workplace is much easier to move on from. One way to quicken the resolution process is to arm your team with communication skills training that can help them assert themselves in an effective, respectful, and clear way. Two colleagues that are disagreeing on strategy can surely benefit from communicating their concerns and expectations to each other. And if they can do so calmly and with kindness, they just may get buy-in and collaboration rather than conflict between two employees.

Encourage Collaborative Problem-Solving

If you’re the manager of two feuding employees facing cognitive conflict in the workplace, encourage them to solve their own problem. With communication skills in tow and emotions in check, guide those in conflict to work together, to listen to each other and weigh the pros and cons of proposed plans. Mediate if you need to and mitigate any escalation, but try to keep them accountable to a solution as an exercise in listening, trying new things, and compromising. This can strengthen teamwork moving forward.

Resolving cognitive conflict in the workplace can improve employee relations, morals, and productivity.


Noah Shaw

Noah Shaw has a Bachelor of Arts in Integrated Marketing Communication from Pepperdine University and is currently earning his Masters in Dispute Resolution at Pepperdine’s Straus Institute for Dispute Resolution. At Pepperdine, Noah has experience in mediating conflict and responding to crisis situations in his role as an Assistant Resident… MORE >

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