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Productive Conflict

Take Your Organization to the Next Level

Do you work in a harmonious business environment? If so, you could be mired in mediocrity or headed for extinction. While the thought of working in a “culture of conflict” sounds like a painful existence, it could be the differentiator that pushes your organization to the next level.

In Patrick Lencioni’s book “The Five Temptations of a CEO,” one of the temptations to avoid is selecting harmony over conflict. That would seem to be contrary to popular opinion. Shouldn’t we all strive to have harmony in our workplace? Who would want to work in an environment where conflict was the culture of the organization?

To understand Lencioni’s point, we need to take a closer look at how he defines both conflict and harmony. For the remainder of the article, when I mention the word “conflict,” I’m referring to “productive conflict,” the kind of conflict that raises positive debate and issue awareness. In contrast, when we mentally conjure up the word “harmony” in respect to the workplace, we think of a group of smiling people going about their business. We think of people always being positive and never rocking the boat. This might seem good on the surface but in this scenario, what we don’t see is the undercurrent of office politics, frustration and anger boiling under the calm surface.

While reading Lencioni’s book, I understood how much of a temptation harmony is for an organization. I can recall several situations in meetings with staff when the debate between two people started to get heated. As the conversation escalated, tensions climbed and people started to get uncomfortable, I’d find myself quickly intervening to pacify the situation. This, as I later found out, was completely the wrong approach. While a confrontation that involves tempers flaring or either of the parties becoming defensive is unproductive and to be avoided, a debate involving productive conflict should be encouraged. That’s how real change happens.

Without productive conflict, an organization (or a relationship) doesn’t advance to the next level. Think about a long-term relationship you’ve had with either a friend or significant other. Everything is “harmonious” in the beginning during that honeymoon period, only showing each other the best parts of both parties. Over time as the little things start to annoy you, nothing is said in order to maintain the harmony. Eventually, frustration and anxiety can take over with one or both people reaching a boiling point. At this point, usually an argument ensues, hopefully a constructive one. After the argument, there is a new understanding between the two of you and the relationship moves to another level. When two people trust each other enough to air their concerns and have a constructive debate, they reach a new appreciation for each other and move the relationship to a higher level. The same thing can happen in an organization in order to move relationships and the business to a higher level.

Incorporating “conflict” into the culture of an organization doesn’t happen overnight and shouldn’t be undertaken until the organization understands that this is acceptable. A high level of trust must be developed between all employees so that when conflict gets brought to the surface, no one feels they are being “thrown under the bus.” This obviously works best with a group of people who have worked together for a period of time. The team needs to be reminded that they are in a safe workplace and that frank conversations will help move the organization forward. This culture will likely be very different for new employees, so this culture should be emphasized starting with the interview process all the way through the employee orientation and initial coaching.

One key factor for this to be successful is trust. Trust must be one of the cornerstones in a company culture that embraces conflict. A workplace that has built a high level trust throughout the organization and that allows people to routinely engage each other in productive conflict and debate is a high functioning organization.

When I speak of productive conflict, I’m really talking employees engaging in frank and direct conversations. This is sometimes referred to as “addressing the elephant in the room.” It’s also important that all employees feel respected throughout this process. If anyone starts to feel as if they are being attacked, that person will shut down and become defensive. At that point, the message you are trying to send won’t be heard. Therefore, the message has to be delivered in a way that it will be heard and foster a constructive debate. I have found it beneficial to “ask” for permission to have a direct conversation.

An example conversation might be: “We both have the same objectives, we all want to achieve success and I have a perception that some things in your department aren’t as productive as they could be. My perceptions could be incorrect and I’d like you to correct me if they are. If not, I might have some thoughts on how to improve results. Are you okay with having a frank conversation about this?”

In most instances, people are responsive to being asked for help. This takes down the walls and encourages conversation. I have seldom found people unreceptive when asked in this manner. Once given permission, state your concerns and perceptions clearly and directly so there is no alternative interpretation. Frequently invite the other person to voice their opinion and disagree with your position, this is constructive debate.

There are times in any organization where constructive conflict is necessary. A group meeting of you staff or a department is a great opportunity to initiate constructive conflict. I like to open these types of meetings like this, “This is valuable time we are taking to have this meeting so let’s make the most of it. We have worked together long enough that we have built trust between each other and we should be able to speak our minds and be direct with each other. If you leave this meeting thinking or feeling that things have been left unsaid, then you become part of the problem.” At this point, the best thing that a manager or leader can do is to get out of the way and allow the conversations flow. Resist the temptation to jump in during uncomfortable moments because this only hijacks the constructive process. If the debate starts to stall, continue to provoke the conversation until everything you think needed to be addressed was discussed.

Whether you call it “stirring the pot” or “rocking the boat,” there are ways that this can be done in a positive manner. Providing a healthy environment where people can freely debate important issues that promote positive change is very productive and profitable. In summary, an organization that encourages “productive conflict” as its culture is a highly functioning organization with trust between the staff members as its cornerstone. What’s better than that?

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Randy Nelson, P.E., is CEO of VFS Fire & Security Services, Orange, California. He is a an AFSA representative on NFPA 16 Technical Committee for Foam-Water Sprinkler and Foam-Water Spray Systems.


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