Just because you can't see conflict in the workplace doesn't mean it isn't happening
Have you honestly ever worked in any team where there was absolutely no conflict?
I didn't think so! It just isn't natural to expect a group of people to come together and agree on everything. In fact, according to Winston Churchill, if you have two people who agree on everything, you don't need one of them.
Managers should give up on preventing conflict and focus on a climate in which conflict is managed effectively.
The illusion of no conflict (transcript)
What do you call a team with no conflict? I’ve asked that question at a number of conferences over the last month at which I’ve been addressing groups of leaders. The answers I have received have ranged through “ideal”, “perfect” and “a dream”.
In reality, a team with no conflict may in fact be a problem. The only realistic answers to the question – ‘What do you call a team with no conflict?’ - are either “imaginary” or “a dictatorship”.
My name’s Simon Thiessen; I’m the CEO of The Real Learning Experience. In this video, I’m going to talk to you about the illusion of no conflict.
The impact of conflict on productivity
At the conferences I mentioned, in which I’ve been talking to leaders about creating a healthy, vibrant, productive climate in their organisations, there’s been a recurring theme that conflict is a bad thing, that conflict will get in the way of productivity, that conflict is destructive.
I’m sure that for many of those leaders, that has been their reality. When conflict has occurred in their organisations, it hasn’t ended well, it’s distracted from the big picture, it’s detracted from bottom-line productivity and overall job satisfaction for their people.
Diversity and conflict
However, in a diverse workplace, having no conflict simply is non-realistic. If you think about the diverse workplace we work in today, we have more diversity across many dimensions than ever before.
To expect such diverse people not to disagree about ideas, about possibilities, about perspectives, even about values, is simply unrealistic. Given that diversity, if there is no conflict in the workplace, it’s actually a really unhealthy sign.
So why do I say no conflict in the workplace is unhealthy?
Simply this: with that diversity, conflict in the workplace is inevitable. And if it’s not occurring at least above the line, then there’s something else wrong. Typically it means that people are too scared to have conflict, too scared to express different ideas, too scared to have different perspectives on things. In a climate like that, people aren’t going to be working at their best.
In a climate like that, people are bunkering down doing what they need to do to get through the day, without putting their head up for fear of being shot at. The reality is that if you work in a workplace like that, the conflict is still occurring, it’s simply not being spoken about.
There are simmering tensions, there are things unsaid that should be said. There are ideas, possibilities that aren’t being shared. The conflict exists. It’s simply a matter of whether you’re hearing about it or not.
How high performance teams deal with conflict
One of the key attributes of a high-performance team is their capacity to have regular, vigorous conflict or debate, but to do it within acceptable boundaries. Members of high-performance teams aren’t scared of conflict. They know that conflict can be a great platform for innovation and creativity.
Instead, they have strong rules, strong principles, about the way they go into conflict. In those teams, conflict is always about issues, about ideas and it’s not about personalities. In those teams, when they have conflict it doesn’t become personal and bitter.
Is your team a victim of the illusion of no conflict?
So if you lead a team in which there doesn’t appear to be any conflict, your team may be suffering under the illusion of no conflict. In that case, my recommendation is to encourage people to share their ideas. Make it safe for them to dissent; make it safe for them to disagree with you and with their colleagues, but at the same time institute strong principles around how conflict will be handled.
For example, you may say if someone doesn’t agree with an idea that you come up with, that you want them to approach you with it. The next step is critical. When they do approach you, what’s the response? What’s your reaction to them? Do they regret bringing this up because they get a really negative response or do they walk away thinking “Huh, I got a fair hearing there. I feel like my different perspective on this issue was listened to, was accepted and whether it’s acted on or not, at least it has got a hearing?”
When colleagues disagree with each other, you may institute some principles about the way they deal with that, that people don’t shoot each other down when there’s a different idea, that people don’t attack people for their different perspectives, that people don’t simply impose history in the form of “That’s not the way we do things around here” whenever someone makes a new suggestion.
As a leader, you play a really strong role in avoiding two poles: one of the poles is that illusion of no conflict. We’re not having any, therefore it doesn’t exist.
The other pole is unhealthy, destructive, personalised conflict. As a leader, you can help your people find a really strong middle ground. That middle ground is defined by a willingness to share ideas, perspectives, differences, and a willingness to listen when people do share. It’s also defined by respectful discussions in which those different ideas and perspectives are held.
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Editor's note: This blog was originally published on December 2014 and has been revamped and updated for comprehensiveness and better readability.
Neil. Moralee via photopin cc