"Avoiding conflict means that you fail to make difficult trade-offs required to prioritize, which leads to overwhelming workloads. Avoiding conflict means tolerating poor performance, which means other employees have to pick up the slack. Avoiding conflict means that it’s not safe to express dissent or frustration, which means stress and resentment build. The ability to get issues on the table and work through them constructively is critical to having a healthy culture.” – Harvard Business Review
Let’s Hash It Out
Conflict management is a skill – and one that few have because we look at it in a negative light. According to a report from CPP, Inc. entitled “Workplace Conflict and How Businesses Can Harness It to Thrive”, U.S. workers are spending nearly 3 hours per week dealing with conflict. This equates to $359 billion lost across industries. That’s a lot of money last we checked. So what if this conflict could produce financial gain that outweighs the cost of it? That’s where good management comes into play.
We’ve spent so much time thinking a peaceful office is best. Come in, pitch ideas everyone loves, implement said ideas, and go about your day. No one wants their proposal they’ve spent the better part of their quarter on to be shot down. But what if that same proposal, when implemented, leads to a billion dollar company loss because of a hole you (and the rest of your team) failed to see – or worse, did see and didn’t feel they could tell you because of well, conflict. The bottom line is this: you’re all pulling for the same team so your end goal should be the same. If what you’re doing to get that end goal isn’t being challenged – how do you know that you’re going about your work in the most efficient, effective, and beneficial way?
Conflict: A Constructive Approach
Margaret Heffernan delivered a TEDGlobal talk entitled “Dare to Disagree” exploring this idea of productive conflict. She opens with a story about Alice Stewart – the scientist responsible for proving x-rays while pregnant can lead to childhood cancer. Now you’d think this data, once discovered would lead to an immediate change and a restructuring of the scans taken for pregnant women. However, it took 25 years after this research came out before the UK and US abandoned x-raying pregnant women. Those that created the technology pushed back. Those that were practicing doctors pushed back. Those who stood to benefit from x-rays and their reputation pushed back.
So what changed?
Well with all of the pushback that Stewart received, she knew she needed a collaborator who was working towards her same end goal with her but would provide the same amount of pushback a negator would within a safe space to do so. Enter statistician George Kneale – her Devil’s advocate. He pushed back on every piece of research she ever laid out and with each pushback came revision until eventually there was nothing left for him to negate, and it was impossible for an outsider to disprove her.
Heffernan finishes her story with this: “How many of us dare to have such collaborators?” And we ask, how many of us dare to be such collaborators?
Now Stewart could have carried on with her research and Kneale could have avoided conflict entirely, patted her on the back, and told her to keep on going. And that 25 years would have probably turned into 50 before someone else swooped in and took the research for themselves.
Know the Difference
Choose your collaborators wisely. Stewart didn’t pick a guy that had a personal vendetta against her, nor did she pick someone who was awestruck by her work. She chose someone who was invested in her success and had the know-how and gumption to create constructive conflict. Fighting for the sake of fighting isn’t the kind of conflict we’re addressing. Choose to have the right people in your corner that know how to pick their fights.
So why does conflict oftentimes leave a bad taste in our mouths? Well because most of us take our work personally. It’s what makes us engaged employees. It’s what drives us to want success for ourselves. And to some degree, work is a part of our identity. And how can it not be? We spend the majority of our waking hours at our jobs. In order to “not take it personally”, we need to change our view on conflict at the office. It’s not about win-lose. It’s about working towards a mutually beneficial end goal and doing it in the best possible way. It becomes win-win.
Conflict then becomes vital to the growth of any organization. Ask the important questions. Challenge the ideas that don’t align with the company’s mission. Be an active thinker and listener in your meetings.
Get Comfy with Conflict
Harvard Business Review suggests creating a pie chart and dividing it up to represent each role on each team, asking these important questions:
1. What is the unique value of this role on this team? What should this person be paying attention to that no one else is? What would we miss if this role wasn’t here?
2. On which stakeholders is this role focused? Whom does it serve? Who defines success?
3. What is the most common tension this role puts on team discussions? What one thing does the person in this role have to say that frequently makes others bristle?
Noticing the value that each team member brings to the table is vital to company growth and brings attention to why certain conflict exists between certain players. And certain conflict should exist.
For instance, let’s say the Financial Department has tension with the Marketing Department in regards to their new ad campaign. The Financial Department's goal is to save the company money. The Marketing Department's goal is to get the company's message out to their target market. Both have an end goal of creating the company more revenue, and now they have to consider both sides in order to come to the best possible solution for the company. Now if conflict is seen as normative in the company culture, these departments can come to an agreement surrounding best practices moving forward. If not, the two may grow resentful of each other and see their conflict as interpersonal, misaligning their goals with that of the company's mission.
Normalizing conflict within the office is necessary for company growth. Regularly asking for targeted and specific feedback is necessary for company growth. Creating psychological safety that regularly allows constructive conflict is necessary for company growth.
Now go make some waves.