I‘m a real conflict avoider. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the relationship with my 17-year old twin boys. On Monday evening they have the chore of taking out the garbage and recycle. No big deal, you would think, especially because they could alternate the weeks.
When they return home from football practice around 6:30 pm, I remind them that it’s Monday and they have to take out the trash. “Sure thing, dad”, is the reply I receive. “Why don’t you do it before you shower?” I’ll respond. “Ok” is the one word answer that is thrown my way. A half hour passes and there is no sight of the boys. Their mother calls them down for dinner and when they I appear I ask them if they have taken out the garbage? Almost in unison they reply: “It’s Willi’s turn. No, I did it last week, it’s Chris’s turn.”
Toward the end of dinner I bring up the subject again: “One of you needs to take out the garbage and recycle, the other one is going to help in the kitchen.” Chris responds: “ Dad, I’ve got so much homework, I just can’t.” The other one confirms the statement: “Same here, dad.” Thinking this isn’t worth a big fight, and because homework and good grades are important, I again let them off the hook and end up completing their chore. My dear spouse says: “You’re a real idiot. What did they just learn from that?” She’s right, I am an idiot and I just sent the wrong message to my teenage boys. I feel lousy.
Avoiding conflict is common in the workplace. Employees, managers and leaders fear conflict because they think it will divide the team. They don’t realize that avoiding conflict only makes things worse and that conflict can actually be a good thing. How can conflict be good? Conflict can work to challenge people’s assumptions and get them out of their comfort zone. Just because you have been doing something in a certain way for a very long time, doesn’t mean that there isn’t a better, quicker, more efficient and less costly way to do it. But if you are never challenged on your assumptions, why try something new?
In order to benefit from conflict, the people who are involved in the conflict must have a relationship with each other that is based on total and complete trust. In his book, The Advantage, Patrick Lencioni states:
When there is trust, conflict becomes nothing but
The pursuit of truth, an attempt to find the best possible answer. (pg. 38)
It is human nature to shy away from conflict because it makes us feel uncomfortable. We don’t like to be challenged but this is really the only way we can grow. Think back on a time you were challenged by a teacher, professor, athletic coach or theater director. Their criticism stung, especially if you were called out in front of your class- or teammates. But they weren’t calling us out to embarrass but rather to help us get better, to improve our skill. In most cases, those kids who embraced the feedback, advanced and those that fought it, fell behind. If we really trusted our teacher or coach, deep down we knew that they had our best interest in mind.
The best, most productive teams I’ve ever worked in dealt with some level of conflict. Team members had strong opinions and never thought twice about disagreeing with something you said. But, it was done in a respectful way. We all trusted each other and knew that each member had one goal: succeed as a team.
According to Patrick Lencioni conflict is always present in an organization and the individuals or team find themselves somewhere on the Conflict Continuum (pg. 42). Most organizations and teams find themselves to the left of the midpoint on the continuum, what Lencioni calls the Ideal Conflict Point. Artificial harmony is a place where people smile and agree because they don’t want to rock the boat and be called out as being someone difficult to get along with. Teams that find themselves far to the left of the mid-point are uncomfortable with disagreement and choose the path of least resistance. Unfortunately, they usually don’t add much to the advancement of the organization.
Ideally, a team wants to be positioned just left of the Ideal Conflict Point. It is at this location where good, sometimes heated discussions take place. People are challenging their colleagues’ assumptions, trying to figure out new and better ways to tackle a problem. Because the team is built on trust, no one is offended when a colleague calls him out or challenges him on what he or she has said or how he or she are acting.
Those teams or organizations that find themselves to the right of the mid-point need to take action which would move them a bit left of the Ideal Conflict Point. Their conflict is not healthy and they are probably experiencing turnover. Oftentimes, one employee is the real problem maker and needs to be identified and removed. It may, however, be a cancer that has infected the entire organization. This could be the case in an organization that embraces unhealthy competition, where individuals are only concerned about their own well-being.
Lastly, it is important to understand that people deal with conflict differently. Some have an easier time embracing it while others will experience a high level of anxiety. As business leaders we must help those whom we are leading get comfortable with conflict. This is easier said then done. I believe it starts with really knowing your team members. How is the individual wired? A good behavioral assessment tool will give you important insight into the individual’s make-up. Some of your employees will need to be coached to understand and get comfortable with conflict. Once they understand that this conflict is not personal, not directed at them, then they will have a much easier time embracing it.
Patrick Lencioni: The Advantage, Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything Else In Business, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, 2012
David Roth: Supporting Healthy Conflict in the Workplace: July 29, 2013