Conflict is an undeniable part of working in an organization. Unfortunately, many of us are in denial about this, and lack the skills to successfully navigate conflict. Why? Because we are misguided by three key myths.
MYTH #1: Conflict is dysfunctional. Wherever you bring together people, whether in a family, in a marriage or in an organization, there will be differences in beliefs, approach, opinions, ideas, behaviors, interests, values and norms. Conflict is all around us. Constantly. It IS the normal state of things.
The fact that we associate it with being dysfunctional is because our natural reaction to conflict is negative. Our natural reaction is not to think, “Maybe I can learn something here,”or “Oh, that’s interesting. Maybe I am wrong.” Instead, we feel wronged or annoyed by the implication that that we don’t know what we are talking about.
That is why we have made up and want to believe in the myth of the marriage and family and organization without any conflict. Wouldn’t that be wonderful? As long as we believe in this myth, we’ll continue to be “surprised” by the daily reality of conflicts, and miss an opportunity to use conflict to our advantage.
MYTH #2: All conflict is destructive: Conflict is often misunderstood as a case of opposing goals. It is equated with competition; if one wins, the other loses. However, in an organizational setting, conflict is often about different approaches to achieve a goal, rather than the goal itself. Both parties share an interest and may actually benefit from disagreement about their proposed approaches, as it pushes them to engage in a dialogue which could lead to a new, better approach to achieve their common goal. So, conflict can be constructive too.
MYTH #3: A harmonious workplace is the foundation for success: Wishing for a ‘conflict-free’ work environment is unrealistic and pretending to have such an environment is undesirable. In fact, the philosophy that underpins some of today’s most successful companies is the notion that you must combine the energy, ideas, and knowledge of diverse perspectives to find answers to complex problems. Such teams, composed of high-performing individuals, are naturally subject to contradictory tensions, like cooperation and rivalry, trust and vigilance. These tensions should not be managed away — they are productive and can help teams perform better. The 21st century workplace is one in which people, bound together by a shared vision, leverage their differences and engage in constructive conflict to develop the best possible solutions.
However, this is easier said than done, because as mentioned above, few people have the skills to handle conflict productively. If we are to succeed in today’s fast-paced world, whether we are an organization, a leader or an employee, then we need to learn how to use conflict in a way that helps us become more successful.
In summary: Conflict is part of our everyday reality, and leaders must develop the skills to engage with it in a productive way. Moreover, not all conflict is a case of opposing ends. If parties have a shared goal, then their disagreement about the approach to attain that goal can actually benefit both, because through disagreement they may hammer out a better approach to succeed. Lastly, harmony does not propel us forward. Disagreement does, though this does require that we adhere to a strict set of ground rules to ensure that our disagreement is constructive and not destructive at the individual, team and organizational level.
Enabling positive conflict
It’s thus imperative that leaders learn to manage and guide their teams through constructive conflict to generate the best possible decisions and outcomes. So how does a leader enable constructive conflict? Below we have listed five key strategies
- Encourage people to share their divergent opinions.
This sounds simple, but is actually quite hard. Most people are concerned about stating their opinion for fear of being proven wrong. So instead of asking people to state their personal opinion or POV, start by inviting everyone to help you brainstorm or list different approaches/points of views/solutions. This provides a safe way for people to contribute as they are just helping you take stock of all the possible angles.
Be careful also to not lead with your own ideas/pov’s/etc. because otherwise your leader’s halo will crowd out all other ideas.
- Facts over feelings.
Meetings have become so informal, unstructured and ad hoc that many simply attend without preparing. However, if you want constructive conflict, then you need to set a clear expectation that all opinions must be supported by data and facts. Personal opinions, feelings, hunches, and emotions stand in the way of rational objectivity and conflict resolution. Compel your team members to prepare their fact-based arguments beforehand, and you’ll have a much more productive conversation. (For suggestions on how to structure more effective meetings also read 6 Strategies To Tame The Meetings Monster)
- Be transparent about how decisions are made.
As a leader you need to communicate upfront the criteria by which a decision will be made. This levels the playing field for all involved as it makes everything explicit and transparent.
- Invite your team to dialogue – not debate.
In a debate, each member is focused on arguing and defending their own position. In dialogue, however, each participant works to build an understanding of different perspectives. This means that each person’s position needs to be listened to and captured (eg. on a white board or flip chart) and then further explored by thoughtful questioning. Each time a new person states their position, they should start by acknowledging what they agree to from the other position(s) before stating how their position differs. This process of structured dialogue and inquiry allows the whole group to learn explicitly what they agree on and what their points of difference are. This then opens the door for further insights and creative problem solving to come to a new, better agreed upon solution.
- Task people with proving their own opinions…wrong.
One of the root causes of conflict is our own discomfort with being wrong. We accept in the abstract that people can be wrong, but when we think about ourselves, we lack the ability to understand that we may be wrong. We also have strong negative social connotations with being wrong. We have been taught that the way to be successful in life is to never be wrong.
A great way of opening people up to a more expansive way of thinking is to task them with proving their own solution wrong and to then ask them to form counter arguments to prove those wrong again. This will teach your team members to be more resilient and open minded.
Here are our two favorite books on the topic of managing positive conflict:
SIDEBAR: Why We Avoid Conflict & How That Can Be Destructive
Avoiding may be the most popular approach world-wide to deal with conflict. However, research and observation show that avoiding is seldom useful. Alas, there are many reasons why people don’t stand up for their beliefs and bring important differences to the table. Here are just a few examples
1.They avoid making a clear statement about their position for fear of alienating some of their affiliations
2.They rather play it safe for fear of being proven wrong
3.They don’t want to rock the boat for fear of being perceived as a troublemaker
4.They don’t feel its worth the trouble and believe others will speak up so they don’t have to.
5.They are afraid to offend their boss or colleague
Though many people avoid conflict, it doesn’t mean they don’t engage in it. They just don’t engage in it directly. They instead engage in indirect conflict, which can take the form of passive aggressive nonverbal behaviors such as crossed arms, glaring or rolling eyes, and sighs, as well as complaining to others about the situation or actively ignoring the person(s) with whom they disagree.
Unfortunately, because of its indirect, covert nature, indirect conflict is by definition destructive : The relationship between the two parties suffers. The decision about the issue at hand does not benefit from the input from one of the parties and may therefore not be the best solution/decision. Moreover, the covert negativity likely radiates out to some of the other colleagues related to the two disagreeing parties and as such undermines the moral of the wider team.
A Special Relationship: Women and conflict
Though conflict isn’t anyone’s favorite topic, women tend to have an especially difficult relationship with conflict. How so? Because of societal pressures for women to be “nice” – non-confrontational, non-aggressive, caring, and accommodating. This is a burden women face each time when they do speak up. If they do so, they risk being called bitchy – by men and women alike. It is even worse if two women engage in a direct conflict. That is immediately denoted as a catfight and deemed especially unsavory. Society’s double standard becomes even clearer when we look at the same situations for a male protagonist. A men who speaks up is deemed courageous, strong and confident. Two men who engage in a direct conflict are competitive and “just men”. It therefore should come as no surprise that women have a special knack for wanting to avoid conflict. But that still doesn’t make it right.
Though it is not our place to comment on how women handle this in their private lives, any woman who aspires to lead needs to learn how to engage in constructive direct conflict. Because avoiding conflict may feel less stressful & more enjoyable in the short term, but it may also lead to less good decisions. Instead they have to learn to carefully use dissent and tension to bring out the best in their teams and organizations.
So, avoiding conflict may seem harmless, but it really isn’t