Conflict: what is it good for?

I find myself talking more and more about dealing with conflict.

Some work teams and some leadership teams get stuck in conflict and have a really hard time agreeing on anything. But what I see much more often than that is teams that are not willing and/or able to disagree in a healthy, functional way.

Conflict, done in a healthy and functional way, is incredibly valuable. The tension of difference, properly harnessed feeds a groups ability to make good decisions, generate creative solutions and innovate. But many individuals, teams, and organizations avoid conflict like the plague. Since I first experienced it where I live, I refer to it as “Nebraska Nice.” We tend to choose being polite over being honest with each other.

So we have quiet, reserved, polite workplaces, but there is a whole bunch of “stuff” simmering below the surface. We cannot be honest and disagree with each other. We sit around the conference table and nod our heads up and down, and then in the meeting after the meeting we tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth to a smaller group of peers with whom we actually feel comfortable being honest.

Any of that sound familiar?

Conflict should be a natural component of any social space. If each of us is being authentic, there is going to be difference between us when we come together in a meeting or a decision-making process. Difference brings tension into those spaces. This is perfectly natural and valuable. But we have a very important decision to make at this point — one we sometimes overlook.

We have to decide how we are going to interact with difference. There are three options and I think we need to eliminate two of them:
1.    Sometimes we focus just on the difference. Never. Agree. On. Anything. This is how we move toward destructive conflict, being able only to disagree and often making the conflict personal. See Congress.
2.    Sometimes we pretend that there is no difference, and we move into fake harmony or “Nebraska Nice.”

Both ways are dysfunctional and both compromise the ability of a group to make sound decisions and generate creative solutions. The third way requires some maturity and some effort, but it is the healthy and constructive way.

To benefit from constructive conflict, we have to both acknowledge our differences and disagreements, and also keep some focus on our commonality and agreements. It is the container of our commonality that allows us to really explore and exploit our differences.

How do you do with conflict in your organization?

What could you do to improve it?

Be good to each other.

  1. Craig Holbrook

    Two points:

    1. This is incredibly powerful as an illustration. Examples of how folks bring this into practice in organizations from either side/extreme would be very powerful as ‘stories’.

    2. Do you also have an email sent weekly? I have signed up to your blog but not sure how all that new tech stuff works.

  2. Joe Gerstandt

    Thanks Craig, you can subscribe via e-mail to my blog (I post weeklyish), and will also get a quarterly newsletter.

  3. Emma Langman

    Hi Joe,

    I love this post – and your site in general. Please do add me to any mailing list you have that will tell me when you blog.

    In the meantime, I’ve attached a link to my blogpost on ‘conflict’. I like your term “Nice Nebraska” – over the Pond we tend to call it “the elephant in the room”. Unfortunately, elephants leave a LOT of cr@p around if you don’t name them and deal with them 🙂

    Ems x

  4. Joe Gerstandt

    Thank you Emma, you can subscribe via e-mail to my blog and you will also get my quarterly newsletter.

  5. Bob Marshall

    Nice post. Congruent with a recent post of mine:

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  7. John Wenger

    Another good article from you Joe. Thought I’d chime in as this subject, what goes on underneath in workplaces, has been on my mind lately. One thing that popped into my head was something I learnt years ago when training as a counsellor. Apparently, within couple relationship, there is something like 70% of difference which is unresolvable. In other words, the things that many couples clash over are related to very deep value systems and will rarely come to agreement over. The implication is that people who are in relationship should focus on resolving the resolvable conflicts and becoming aware of what is not resolvable. This is the ‘diversity’ space, I believe. How can I be myself, with all my values and beliefs, and how can you be you, with all yours, and how can we live in harmony with each other, acknowledging our differences, valuing our differences, and letting us be each other? I have transferred this learning into my current work in businesses and, like you, observe office conflict as healthy. One of the signs of a healthy workplace to me is that it is ‘conflict-capable’. People can resolve the resolvable or be at peace with the difference and still get on with each other.

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