In our work as Management Consultants, we are constantly asked to intervene in conflict situations. Whether we are facilitating a leadership team, coaching an executive, or creating buy-in with stakeholders; we are constantly faced with different perspectives and needs of the individuals involved. These differences often lead to a perception of conflict. But why is that a bad thing?
People live in fear of conflict and spend a lot of time and money trying to figure out how to avoid it. We say, “Embrace it.” Because the fact is: CONFLICT IS UNAVOIDABLE! Conflict has many benefits that are constantly overlooked. And like anything else, you can’t have the good without some of the bad. The key is to focus on managing conflict so that it stays productive and doesn’t turn destructive. By doing that you should find some of the following benefits of healthy conflict:
CONFLICT INSPIRES CREATIVITY AND INNOVATION
A plurality of voices can be messy and difficult to manage. Without it though, you will have “groupthink,” or the tendency for everyone to see things the same way. By wrestling through different perspectives you are creating the possibility of a brand new idea or solution emerging. Divergent thinking is very powerful in uncovering new ways of doing things.
The key is to allow all voices to be heard and not let one dominate the conversation. Pull all stakeholders in and integrate individual perspectives into one group voice. Consider who the individuals are, so you can play to their strengths in a group setting. Tools like the DISC or MBTI can be helpful in making a group of individuals start performing more quickly. Please click here to learn more about the DISC.
LET THE STEAM OUT BEFORE THE MASSIVE EARTHQUAKE
Every day, little things happen that bother us. We can choose to address them or let them pile up until we explode. The truth is it is healthy to air out little grievances (obviously not everything) along the way. This helps avoid a major confrontation that will truly harm productivity. So consider letting some steam out so the pressure doesn’t build to dangerous levels.
These check in’s with people can be formal or informal depending on the situation. A couple things to remember: 1) Go directly to the person and keep the group small, don’t involve people who don’t need to be involved; and 2) Always allow the other person to express their feelings and seek to understand them. It is helpful to know one’s own conflict management style in these cases and for that the Thomas-Kilmann Instrument can be a very helpful tool.
YOU CAN MANAGE IT BEFORE IT MANAGES YOU
Since we know conflict is inevitable, it is very beneficial to get ahead of it. If you avoid major disagreements or personality clashes for too long, they may surface in a big way at the worst of times. By pro-actively setting aside time to address issues, you choose how and where they get handled. In fact, with this approach you may find positive impacts to productivity as a result of taking it head-on.
Sometimes people need help working through problems. A mediator or a facilitator can help, so don’t be afraid to ask for assistance. And remember, it is almost always the case that two parties agree on more than they disagree on. So begin your dialogue by listing all the areas of agreement, this will set a positive tone for the rest of your meeting.
LACK OF CONFLICT LEADS TO PASSIVE-AGGRESSIVE BEHAVIORS
As a consultant, I get most nervous when I see a group that overly uses politically correct language and never disagrees with each other. This is a sign that they don’t trust each other enough to air their disagreements. In the absence of trust, people will just play nice and then say or do what they want after the meeting, when nobody can see them. This is one of the most destructive ways for conflict to emerge, as it is unmanaged.
Encourage differing opinions and make it safe for people to disagree in the group setting. Over time the group will know that it is alright to have a different view point and they will start sharing more freely. This leads to individuals having more buy-in to the agreements made and will make it much less likely for them to turn to passive-aggressive behaviors to get their needs met.
Trust was discussed in the above section, but the relationship between trust and conflict cannot be overstated. Without trust, healthy conflict simply isn’t possible (see Lencioni’s 5 Dysfunctions of a Team). By allowing divergent views to emerge and managing them productively, over time the team learns that they can trust their team-mates enough to say what they really feel. This increases trust more every time that message is reinforced.
The benefits to this are immeasurable. A team that has trust will demonstrate higher levels of productivity in both: quality of work and time that it takes to complete projects. This is because they don’t have to waste time qualifying every statement or worrying about offending someone who disagrees.
Conflict is inevitable, so embrace it! Healthy conflict leads to more creativity and innovation and teams will thrive when it is managed in a pro-active, positive manner. Do not run from conflict because it will find you…and it may find you at the worst time, in the worst way!