How Conflict Can Be Productive

 In Assessments, Culture, Leadership, Organizational Development

Productive Conflict

Conflict can improve team outcomes or destroy them, depending on how you approach it.

Typically, individuals tackle conflict in one of two ways:

  1. Some dive into it headfirst and argue with everyone about everything without regard for their perspectives, experiences, and motives.
  2. The other common approach is taking coffee breaks when the conversation gets heated. This reaction is so prevalent that a Harvard Business Review article referred to it as “cappuccino teams.”  While having access to coffee is great, coffee in and of itself cannot restore peace.

Do you recognize these behaviors in your own organization? Unfortunately, neither of these typical responses are productive.

Unproductive conflict is costly for your organization.  According to the Center for Creative Leadership, high turnover, excessive absenteeism, questionable decision making, feelings of tension, and a few other issues we are accustomed to seeing are actually signs of poor conflict competence.

All you “coffee breakers” will be disappointed to hear that eliminating conflict is not the right solution. Conflict does not need to end in hurt feelings and broken relationships and power plays.  In The Advantage, Patrick Lencioni explains that conflict, when done properly, can lead to deeper relationships.  Teams that are willing to disagree are not always worried about what is being said behind their backs.  They know what their peers think and can be confident that agreements, like disagreements, are being shared openly.

The desire to agree can be strong among people who respect one another. Here’s the reality:  You weren’t hired just to agree.  If you were, you might be in the wrong job.  You were probably hired to think, contribute, collaborate, create, or coach, but not agree.

So how can conflict be managed in a way that is productive and leads to the best possible outcome? Here are three ways to positively approach conflict:

Actively Listen

Everyone wants to be heard and, on properly sized teams, it is possible.  In a debate, we want our ideas considered and our expertise respected.  We must do the same for others on our teams.

Consider the ideas of others, confirm understanding, and then respond.  Avoid thinking about your response while others are talking.  You will be surprised at how much you learn about the team and their perspectives.

Stop and Consider Your Response

We all learned to stop, drop, and roll as kids.  We realized that running around with our pajamas on fire was not an effective solution.  Allowing our minds to create stories, getting defensive, and being confrontational are the conflict equivalents to running around on fire.

Responding to conflict is also a three-step process:  stop, reflect, and respond.  We all respond to conflict differently.  At times, our responses can cause unnecessary problems instead of leading to resolution.  It is important to stop and consider our knee-jerk reactions and select a more productive response, like seeking to understand.

Encourage It

Encourage debate.  If your organization has not supported conflict that involves everyone’s ideas, encourage it.  Lencioni suggests stopping people in the middle of the conflict and telling them that they are doing the right thing.  He’s found that teams need this encouragement.  If you have more quiet or new people on your team, ask them for their opinions during conflict situations.  These steps will encourage productive conflict.

When a debate or conflict arises in a situation, I actually get a little excited. You may be thinking that I’m the type that enjoys arguments. I’m not! But I know a secret that people in healthy organizations know…  Conflict can be good and even productive.

Recently, we facilitated an Everything DiSC Productive Conflict session.  During the session, participants had what they called “breakthroughs” and enjoyed becoming more aware of their conflict reactions. Good conflict takes hard work, but it is worth the effort.  We say conflict is never easy, but it becomes easier with practice.

Teams that engage in productive conflict openly share ideas and insights.  They welcome one another’s suggestions, experience, and expertise and, as a result, uncover potential risks and increase the value of the outcomes.

We all want to be on teams that get results and we can be if people are willing to engage in healthy conflict.  Contact EDGE Leadership Consulting to find out more about how a DiSC Productive Conflict session could benefit your business.

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