Conflict is an inevitable element of human relationships. Conflict exists in every organization, and to a certain extent – promotes a healthy exchange of ideas and creativity. Conflict can arise from managing differing perspectives and what would appear to be incompatible concerns. The moment we accept that conflict is a natural part of our emotional landscape, it becomes easier to manage than if we expect it to disappear and never reemerge.
Of course, simply accepting conflict doesn’t solve the problem. Conflict can result in employee dissatisfaction, reduced productivity, poor customer service, absenteeism and increased employee turnover. However, properly managed, the clash of ideas, interests and preferences can be a positive force that will expose the weaknesses of positions, leading to creativity, innovative problem-solving and growth. “Instead of me against you, it becomes us against a problem,” says Robert Ferguson, co-author with Peter Coleman of the new book Making Conflict Work: Harnessing the Power of Disagreement. From this point of view, leaders will often seek to create conflict in order to get the best from a team.
Imagine there is a meeting taking place to review a business’ strategy to roll out its first product. The company’s CMO describes the marketing plans and targets and asks whether anyone disagrees with the proposed approach. The room is silent as everyone is in agreement and the meeting goes on. Leaders who take silence for agreement are missing the opportunity to corroborate their thoughts and plans in a team setting. If a meeting seems more like a picnic than a fast-paced ice hockey game, that’s a warning that there’s a lack of engagement in your organization. There are many important reasons you should care about this. To begin, the potential to improve on existing ideas is lost, as they are discarded rather than discussed. Furthermore, you do not have the kind of commitment that comes from an open and honest debate.
Small businesses are especially well positioned to benefit from collaborative conflict, says management consultant Patrick Lencioni, whose latest best-selling book, The Advantage: Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything Else In Business, says: “Because of the close relationships in a small business, you can cycle through a problem quickly,” he says. “You get everyone in a room and say, ‘Here’s the challenge. How are we going to solve it?’’.
Harnessing healthy conflict is not a painless exercise. It requires taking steps that you might find uncomfortable and at times, create tension in your team as you allow a thorough, but cordial back-and-forth. That is because conflict is not a matter of objectively distinguishing the smartest solution for a problem, but rather driven by personal elements such as emotion and ego.
To create an environment that fosters healthy conflict in your organization, you must start by promoting a culture that honors differences of opinion and alternative points of view. People who feel rewarded and recognized for healthy disagreement are likely to disagree again. This environment should also provide safety for the employee who disagrees. This means that managers and leaders need to know how to mediate conflicts appropriately. Similarly, employees also need to know how to participate effectively in disagreements.
In his essay on Friendship, Ralph Waldo Emerson writes that in a friend he is not looking for a “mush of concessions” or “trivial conveniency,” for someone who would agree with everything he says. Rather, he is looking for a beautiful enemy who will challenge and defy, enhance and elevate him. A person who only wants to be “beautiful” and supportive toward them without ever resisting or confronting does not push me to improve and grow; a person who disputes what I say and do without caring and supporting me is antagonistic and harsh. A true friend must be both beautiful toward me and an enemy. The idea of a beautiful enemy does not just apply to an intimate relationship with one’s friend or partner, but to all relationships—at work and at home. To help other people we need to have the courage to be honest and forthright, while being empathic and sensitive.
This is also related to a central theme in organizational behavior, distinguishing between affective and cognitive conflict. Affective conflict focuses on challenging the person him or herself, on their emotions, and is unhealthy. Cognitive conflict is about challenging the idea, while respecting and accepting the person, his or her emotions…