Conflict can happen in any workplace, and it takes many forms. Obviously, some conflict is never acceptable – discrimination or bullying, for example. But who says that all conflict must be bad?
I often come across conflict in my role, and it’s common for the people involved to feel that there’s only one way to deal with it. Angry, defensive responses or attacking at any sign of conflict creates an unhealthy workplace that impacts negatively on everyone around. Those directly involved will justify why they chose their response and don’t think about whether there are other ways to deal with it.
The thorny issue of conflict in the workplace
I really love this talk by William Klaassen, “How To Eat Thorns.” In it, Klaassen explores the way giraffes eat from thorny plants as an analogy for how we deal with conflict. He summarises four reactions to getting that thorn in your mouth. You might recognise one as your usual response.
- Spit it out (causing pain to someone else)
- Swallow the thorn whole (causing pain to yourself)
- Tune into your own feelings and needs
- Tune into the other person’s feelings and needs
Which approach do you usually take? I definitely recognise the second one in myself as I can tend towards being a ‘people pleaser’.
Another great talk to watch is “Dare to disagree” by Margaret Heffernan. This is her take on conflict:
“Most people instinctively avoid conflict, but conflict allows people to be creative, solve problems, and find solutions. When we dare to break the silence and we create conflict, we enable us and the people around us to do our best thinking. Great teams allow people to deeply disagree. We need to see conflict as thinking and we need to get really good at it.”
Can conflict be good for your team?
As people leaders, we often feel we need to bring our teams together. Gelling and working collaboratively, each person holding up the other and heading in the same direction. It sounds really positive, so it’s understandable that we assume anything else would be negative.
But is it possible to reframe conflict to be something we should encourage?
I would go as far as to say that without disagreement, there are no new ideas or innovation, and a team gets stuck in ‘group-think’ where being agreeable with each other is more important than challenging ideas to find the best solution.
Personally, I love a good debate. My approach can be seen as being difficult or obstructive, because instead of following the majority view, I like to challenge ideas. People have even said to me, “Why can’t you just do what we’re asking you to do, instead of asking all these questions?” My reason is simple – I often feel there might be an alternative route that could be better. Whether they agree with my idea or not, at least by discussing it I would feel more valued.
Challenging ourselves to find the best solutions
Great breakthroughs in thinking or ground-breaking inventions haven’t come from the people who agree and follow everyone else. They come from people with ideas or hunches that challenge the accepted way forward, and who want to try things a different way. These are the people prepared to be outcast from the group to prove or test their ideas. Imagine how much faster and stronger these innovations could come about, if the group welcomed challenge and tested those ideas through positive debate.
We all tend to have one way of dealing with conflict – or what we perceive to be conflict. Our response might be instinctive, but perhaps we can find a new way.
So, next time you’re hiring someone new for your team, should you choose the candidate who will work well with everyone else? Perhaps you should think about bringing someone in who will upset the apple cart a bit, challenging the status quo because they see the world differently. Of course, your role as the people leader is to guide the conflict to be constructive and positive. Are you ready for the challenge?
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