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Daily Leadership Thought #186 – Conflict Can Be Good, Even Essential


I am very troubled these days by our collective inability to disagree. Instead of simply seeing things from a different point of view, the other side is demonized and sometimes even subject to ridicule.  How many times have you heard someone say, “They just don’t get it…” as if the other person unfortunately was missing the appropriate level of intellect to grasp the situation?   Even worse, there are many instances where the other side has no interest whatsoever in challenging their own assertions and ideas.  Content, instead, to take an unyielding position that over time becomes based more on emotions than facts.

In organizations as in democracies the inability to foster constructive conflict is a troubling development.  To grow and get better, there needs to be disagreement about how to best do things and find new answers to old problems.  Just as was the case with our founding fathers, the most effective groups/teams engage in thoughtful deliberations weighing all sides of an issue.  Jefferson needed Adam’s and Franklin’s perspective to draft the Declaration of Independence even when the feedback hurt his feelings and rankled his own ideological perspective.   Ronald Reagan needed Tip O’Neill to balance his political agenda and vice versa.

We should build organizations and personally surround ourselves with people who challenge our contentions; otherwise we are just seeking fan clubs of like minded individuals.  When the latter happens, we stop growing and start confining ourselves to the narrow passageway of limited thinking, paradoxically becoming increasingly vulnerable to the thoughts and actions of others who are more open-minded.  The goal of any individual and collection of individuals should be to evolve intellectually and broaden their perspective.   After all, change is our ever-present reality not just a choice.

Of course there are different levels of conflict.  And, conflict simply for the sake of conflict is not only a waste of time but damaging to interpersonal relationships.   Unfortunately, we all know people who excel at this activity.   Conflict should also be about things that matter not the trivial or unimportant and in those cases just trust the other person.  Moreover, conflict in its best form is issue driven not personality driven. Always remember, it’s the message not the messenger that’s most important despite what the media tries to instill in us!  Stay focused on the issue at hand and the related FACTS.  Avoid drawn out opinion based discussions because they rarely move the other side and end up only strengthening their resolve.

Bottom line is that conflict always works best when it strives to improve the overall level of decision making.  It achieves this by bringing all the facts to the surface and forcing the consideration of alternative perspectives before taking any significant action. Embrace conflict when much is at stake.  Avoid it when the stakes are relatively meaningless.  I guarantee that  you will make better decisions and live a richer life.

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2 Responses

  1. Great article. In promoting conflict for productive change, what mechanisms can be put in place to ensure that the stronger personality in the conflict isn’t simply “winning the argument” when the weaker personality may have a better model to follow for a productive work place?

    • This is always a challenging issue because stronger personalities will always try to dominate any discussion. I find that process can be your friend in these situations. You can ask for feedback in a written versus verbal format without names attached and then capture the results on a flip chart before soliciting feedback. In addition, you can anonymously ask the group to vote of the value of the ideas being presented. You can also ask the group once you’ve brainstormed ideas to categorize the individual items as either facts or opinions. Once they are identified as opinions, you can then take them through a logic test. It is also helpful when facilitating to sue groundrules to guide the process and I sit the stronger personalities closer to me so I can control them. I’ve also asked bosses to keep quiet and control their body language until everyone else has spoken. If it’s a one on one process then it always helpful for the organization to have a formal process/tool the organization uses to evaluates ideas. There are many books on meeting facilitation you would probably find helpful. Hope this helps.

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