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“The better able team members are to engage, speak, listen, hear, interpret, and respond constructively, the more likely their teams are to leverage conflict rather than be leveled by it.” – Runde and Flanagan, Becoming a Conflict Competent Leader

Conflict is inevitable. Whenever there are two people in a room, for any length of time, there is bound to be disagreements and discord. (Even when there’s one person in a room, we still usually find a way to create conflict.) If left unchecked, workplace conflict has the potential to erode morale, productivity, and results – or spur innovation, advancement, and engagement. The question for leaders is: when do you step in and stop conflict and when do you get out of its way?

Destructive Conflict vs. Constructive Conflict

Conflict resolution pioneer Morton Deutsch wrote, “Conflict has been given a bad reputation… However, it is the root of personal and social change; it is the medium through which problems can be aired and solutions arrived at.” He argued that we shouldn’t try to “eliminate” conflict but rather ask, “What are the conditions that give rise to lively controversy rather than deadly quarrel?”

But before we tackle that question, let’s look at the “bad reputation” of conflict. Some of it is well deserved! Destructive conflict is a heavy, and costly, burden:

  • US workers spend more than 2.5 hours per week trying to resolve conflict. This results in a collective $359 billion loss for companies every year.
  • 25% of employees report that avoiding conflict caused them to miss work.
  • 10% said conflict resulted in project failure.
  • Replacing an employee who leaves because of workplace conflict (a common response) costs you 150-200% more than that person’s salary/benefits.

And if conflict is costly, avoiding it is even more so. According to Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler, authors of Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High,” employees waste an average of an entire workday and $1500 for every “crucial conversation” they avoid. Their research found that 95% of an organization’s workforce “struggles to speak up” and engage in “resource-sapping avoidance tactics.” The costs quickly add up.

When to Step In: Destructive Behaviors

So what are the “conditions that give rise” to destructive conflict? In my experience, it’s when there is an environment in which personal attacks thrive. It’s not about the work or the project; it’s about this person or that person and our feelings towards them.

Other times, conflict arises when people simply don’t think through what they want or need to say before they actually say it. Whether they don’t have their facts in order or don’t construct their message in a way that lands well, this can create anger, frustration, distrust, and a host of other negative emotions in other people.

No matter what the particular cause, destructive conflict will impact your team negatively. If left to fester, it’ll spread to other areas of your organization. End it. Don’t avoid these crucial conversations.

As a leader, it is incumbent on you to step up and help your people resolve these issues. As Patrick Lencioni, author of The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, says, “The only thing worse than engaging in conflict is not doing so.”

And When to Stay Out of the Way: Constructive Behaviors

Teams need constructive conflict; it is, as Deutsch noted, how problems are aired and solutions are created. Without it, stagnation is a clear and present danger.

At Southwest Airlines, for instance, leaders became worried about the “artificial harmony” they found in their staff. People were so determined to avoid conflict that they created this perfect façade. The airline decided to actively promote managers who were willing and able to air conflicts and develop solutions. These future execs are then provided training in how to hold “robust” conversations respectfully.

The ability to handle conflict is essential at an organization-wide level – and, as employers like Southwest prove; it is beneficial to individual careers as well. As companies become more dependent on teamwork and collaboration, you need people who are “astute at dealing with conflict rather than ducking it,” says Judith Glaser, author of Conversational Intelligence.

Sharpening Your Organizational Edge

How do you sharpen a knife? You grind it against steel or stone. You expose it to the friction of a contrasting surface. This is how you hone your organizational edge. You expose ideas, problems, challenges, and people to friction. When it’s constructive and respectful, you’ll come away sharper and stronger.

William Wrigley, Jr., founder of the famous gum empire, said, “When two men in business always agree, one of them is unnecessary.” You need those minds working together, and at odds, to create innovative solutions and propel your organization forward.

When your people engage in this type of conflict, get out of the way. Get comfortable with conflict – but not too comfortable! You still need that edge, that urgency, to achieve the results you want.

The worst move you can make when confronted with destructive conflict is to ignore it. The worst move you can make when confronted with constructive conflict is to stop it. Learning how to minimize one and encourage the other is one of the most important responsibilities of leadership. When you can do that, you can begin to leverage the inevitable conflict – rather than “be leveled by it.”