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How To Support The Right Kind Of Conflict At Work

This article originally appeared on Forbes.

It’s terribly hard for most people to raise crucial disagreements at work, even though staying silent can mean we miss production deadlines, misunderstand customers’ requirements and stifle creativity because no one feels comfortable to share ideas that might deviate from the tried-and-true. According to Liane Davey, psychologist and author of The Good Fight, good, positive people have generally been socialized to be nice and mind their own business.

This makes them avoid even worthy challenges out of concern for hurting others’ feelings or disrupting others’ standard practices. Unfortunately, the nicer, closer or more personal the organizational culture feels—such as in nonprofits, family businesses and mission-based businesses like credit unions and B Corporations—the more this is likely to be a problem, given that the closer we feel to each other, the harder it can be to raise an overt challenge.

And yet, conflict serves a crucial role in uncovering potential risks and creating new innovations, because as Davey says, “When everyone thinks alike, no one thinks very much.” So how can organizations increase the amount and quality of productive conflict when it’s not the natural tendency of most of the people who work there?

Davey suggests that organizations should stop hiring the 10 to 15% of applicants who “who don’t realize that some things are worth fighting for” as well as the 10 to 15% who fight in personal or vicious ways for self-centered reasons. Everyone else would then fall “within a range that’s teachable, trainable and culturally malleable.” She recommends using a combination of pre-hire assessments, behavioral interview questions, and reference-checking to get to the optimal 40-60%.

Her suggestions for interview questions to determine conflict tolerance include, “Where did you go along [with what everyone else thought] and have a negative result?” or “Where do you think compromise is a suboptimal solution?” And reference checks can probe for how the individual performed on cross-functional teams, or how they handled situations when they were opposed to something another team was trying to achieve.

Use Language And Process To Normalize Disagreement

Metaphor can be very helpful in introducing people to the concept of more comfortable conflict. One of Davey’s most illustrative images involves using a tarp to cover a tent to keep the rain out. All team members need to be involved, but if they all pull in the same direction they’ll uncover the tent, so they all must pull in their different directions. On the other hand, if one individual pulls too vigorously in their own direction, without care for the needs and strengths of the others, the lack of balance can mean that someone else ends up in the mud or exposed to the elements, as when a solution “may be the perfect answer for Sales, but Supply Chain can’t deliver on it.”

How can organizations increase the amount and quality of productive conflict when it’s not the natural tendency of most of the people who work there?

The greatest benefit comes from systematizing the team’s conversations and decision-making processes to optimize the tension, rather than downplaying it. Davey trains teams to ask explicitly, “What’s the unique value of each [team member’s] role, and how is that value in tension—and supposed to be in tension—with the other roles on the team?”

Formalize The Obligation To Disagree

Mere permission and encouragement to raise different points of view may not be enough, though. To change team members’ mindsets from conflict-averse to conflict-productive, leaders should require their team members to disagree, to demonstrate their own unique value, to represent their stakeholders and to raise new ideas. Davey wants us to treat the people who disagree well “as key team players as opposed to talking about the person who disagrees as being a poor team player.”

Similar to Amazon’s “Disagree and Commit” philosophy, Davey makes the point that the value of conflict is wasted if we “agree to disagree. We don’t get to sit with our arms crossed waiting for the thing to fail so we can say, ‘I told you so.’ Every individual’s obligation, once a decision is made, regardless of how we felt about the decision, is to say, ‘If I really believed in this, what would my discretionary effort look like? What would I do? How do I go all in to make sure that this is going to work?’”

It can be frightening for both leaders and team members to contemplate engaging in conflict. But organizations can address these concerns by hiring people who have the potential to tolerate structured conflict and developing processes and language to ensure that conflict is part of the organizational culture rather than a personal issue. When organizations formally value both conflict and post-conflict participation, people will learn that what they now think of as conflict is the normal way to get work done well.

Onward and upward —


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