On opposing ends of a continuum, there are those amongst us who love a good verbal tussle, a professional challenge or a debate and then there are those amongst us that run headlong from the slightest frown. Usually it has something to do with our experience of conflict as kids; I know my parents used to see it as a personal slight on their marriage if anyone heard them so much as disagree – so guess which end of the continuum I tend towards?
The word conflict at its extreme reminds us of armed battles in Afghanistan and Iraq; we’d hope that level of disagreement is never present in the workplace. We also tend to hear the word collaborative used as a descriptor of high performing teams, or to illustrate best practice for partners and leaders coming together to make decisions. What we’re missing here is that conflict, well managed and authentic, can lead to highly creative outcomes that may never have been previously considered.
So what is needed to create the sort of healthy conflict that is constructive in the workplace? What are the ‘rules of engagement’ that allow even those on the most passive end of the continuum feel safe to challenge or disagree?
Let’s be honest, we all like to be right, and when we’re not or a decision goes against us, we need to be able to rely on the strength of the existing relationship so as not to harbour any ill-feeling. If there is an emotional residue or a sense of unease, an honest conversation, not about resurfacing the details of the disagreement or rationalising your position but about the quality of the relationship, will often create a rich discussion that builds, rather than diminishes, the relationship. Consider the times with loved ones and friends when you’ve stepped in to ‘clear the air’ and had an honest conversation. Generally the personal relief you feel at being able to walk away knowing things have been resolved between you is reward enough. Being right becomes irrelevant (well almost, anyway).
After a particularly difficult conversation with a colleague over a complex decision with broad ranging implications, I asked her “Are we ok?”, her reply was, “It would take more than a professional disagreement to damage a relationship as strong as ours. I rely on these disputes to get us all to a clearer place.” That joint recognition of the value of respectful conflict (and the willingness to ensure it remains undamaged) is what makes it such an asset in the workplace.
Another key ingredient that allows for healthy confrontation in the workplace is the intent behind why the disagreement occurs. If the discussion occurs in the best interests of another, of the project, the client or business then there should be no residue of discontent toward the other party. Put simply our objective is to have conflict with a view to achieving the best outcome and by respecting the intent with which another party tables their opinion. What is interesting about this principle is that it brings with it a greater willingness for each party to listen to and discuss the validity – in whatever small part – of each position rather than dogged loyalty to their own position. This allows everyone to feel heard within the discussion.
A concept that resonates most strongly with me on this notion of intent is presented by William Ury in his book, “Getting to Yes”. He talks about sitting on the same side of the table with your ‘opponent’ and working together (hmm, sounds like collaboration) to confront the issue rather than each other. To me, that seems a more beneficial use of energy rather than wasting it by pointing out the flaws in each other’s opinion (if not their character).
To be able to make the space for healthy conflict in the workplace, there needs to be some ground rules. A little like a sporting event, there is the playing field on which the play occurs, outside of that, it’s out of bounds. Players need to feel secure in their personal protection and the degree of exposure and no-one can take the play ‘into the stands’. Players need to feel confident that the other party will play by the rules and not wilfully try to hurt them, and to know that if things get out of hand there is a ‘referee’ or some avenue of escalation to remind everyone of the rule. This is particularly well articulated in the following quote:
“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and right doing, there is a field. I will meet you there.” – Jalal ad-Din Rumi (Persian Poet).
Understanding your own needs to win, and your willingness to be genuine in your intent and support of the rules of engagement is what ultimately will ensure that you can maintain your emotional resilience in workplace conflict. It is not only about you, it is also about having your antennae up so that you notice when another’s safety may also be at risk.
Just as not enough conflict can rob a business of creativity, too much conflict can become time consuming, counter-productive and exhausting. I worked with a colleague once, a very smart individual who had been a national debate champion. No matter how well thought through an argument was, the game for him was in always winning. It didn’t take long for the whole team to recognise that it was a waste of our time to bother putting forward any opinion, so like good little puppies, we all simply rolled over in unison and submitted to his view. It simply saved us a heap of time and unnecessary angst. With a level of self-awareness, this individual would have seen that none of us felt safe to disagree so just chose not too.
In summary, next time you’re about to make that fight or flight decision, get over yourself… you could be about to hear a perspective that offers way more than what you came up with on your own! In short, 1 + 1 could just possibly = 3.
Healthy conflict requires:
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