Conflict in Organizations – The Case for More
By Tim Nickel, Fifth Business Mediation and Organizational Consulting
Let me be clear, I’m terrified of conflict – or at least I used to be. That might seem odd coming from a mediator (and maybe I’m doing myself no favours by saying it), but it’s true. Being the youngest of five, when voices were raised in my family, my best bet was to stay occupied, stay quiet, and stay nice. I got a lot of mileage out of minding my own business. So… Why mediation??? Right… Well, it turns out that I ended up growing very comfortable being near conflict. It was dreadful, however, to be in it. My job in the family, as it turned out, was to lower the tension and help the rest of the crazy folks around me NOT have conflict. Now you see the attraction of mediation. I could get paid for doing what came naturally.
I didn’t know the incredible opportunities I was giving up.
What I have learned in my career, but more powerfully in my personal life (thanks Sherry), is that there is little growth that happens without conflict. Conflict is the inevitable result of the clash of diverse views, identities, and ideologies. As Kant and Hegel’s dialectics describe, an internal dissonance is sparked inside someone when they are exposed to a fundamentally different point of view. That person grows to resolve the dissonance and the result is a more refined and powerful view of the world.
Organizations thrive when conflicting views are mixed.
- Ideas stimulate further ideas.
- The urgency of intense views drives creative thinking.
- People stretch their minds to come up with integrated plans and proposals when they know their own views will be held up to scrutiny and the answer is acknowledged as truly unknown.
- Openness to conflict allows honesty and authenticity.
- Root causes are laid bare, prompting ideas to correct the path.
Conflict is exciting. Conflict is dramatic. Conflict makes work fun.
Of course, they’re right when they say conflict is dangerous. What I just described can hurt feelings. Hurt feelings can result in guarded behaviour. Guarded behaviour results in mistrust and further actions that hurt feelings. The statistics are clear – uncontrolled conflict damages organizations. I’ve seen the results. I talk to people after months and sometimes years of unaddressed entrenched conflict and they seem deeply broken – like victims of trauma. The organization limps along, people doing their jobs but unable to truly focus on the mission.
When an organization is at the point where conflict is escalated and entrenched, they have few options but to pull in a competent mediator to right the listing ship and heal. They are bleeding and they need first aid. Once they have sufficiently healed (it still amazes me the transformations that can happen) that organization needs to make a choice: A) settle in to business as usual and continue to view conflict as dangerous (Why wouldn’t they. The evidence is clear!) or B) consciously and methodically increase their capacity for conflict.
I declare that the reason conflict grew the way it did in that organization is because they believed conflict was negative in the first place. This is completely understandable. It is the predominant view and is supported by intuition and people’s gut feelings of fear and anger.
However, imagine if they had embraced conflict when views and narratives began to diverge and the signs were clear that camps were forming. Imagine people talking instead of being coached to separate their desks (“Just get along and make sure you document everything.”). Imagine the person-in-charge, or a peer leader, stopping the show to find out what is going on. Imagine an ongoing practice of honest and forthright (conflictual) conversation where natural forces of integration place limits on and expose unhealthy entrenchment and escalation, transforming the conflict into group learning and individual growth. Their skill at talking in an emotionally charged environment helps them focus on the issues, avoid making inferences, and understand the deeper intentions of the people involved. It is hard to form an inaccurate narrative of someone else when you are talking openly with them.
An organization’s capacity for conflict varies as a function of their skill, state of relationships, and commitment to dialogue. As soon as there is a commitment to dialogue, an acknowledgement that conflict is not necessarily bad, the capacity begins to grow. It starts with simple honesty and courage. This space between simple honesty and the higher limits of the individuals’ and group’s capacity for conflict is the sweet spot of growth. It is the crucible where ideas, identities, and ideologies mix in alchemic creativity, where people move from not-agreeing to deciding, from not-knowing to group understanding, from not-having to creating. And in the deciding, understanding, and creating, new sophistications and abilities are born.
If a person’s only experience of conflict they remember is painful and scary, the thought of opening up the door to conflict in meetings at the office is probably horrifying – a quick “Thanks but no thanks! I’ll just stay occupied, quiet, and nice.” They hope that conflict will pass them by. The proposal here, though, is not to simply heap on a whole lot of conflict all at once (a la Michael Scott of the The Office). The model says the sweet spot ends at “The limits of the individuals’ and group’s capacity for conflict” and begins with simple honesty and courage. It can start carefully and slowly, wherever the group is at and should only go at the pace the group and individuals can handle – as long as the goal is to increase individuals’ and the group’s capacity for conflict.
Despite calls by a long list of prominent gurus like Patrick Lencioni (Overcoming the Five Dysfunctions of a Team) and Peter Senge (The Fifth Discipline) to embrace and understand conflict as a stimulant for learning and positive change, many organizations – I would go as far as to say most organizations – view conflict as only negative, or at least this is what their actions show. These actions show an underlying assumption that conflict is harmful, inevitable, and best managed through positive friendly cultures and, when it flares, difficult conversations that resolve the issue. The goal is to prevent further conflict.
But ohhh… the opportunities that are missed!
Tim Nickel is the principle consultant for Fifth Business Mediation and Organizational Consulting. He specializes in facilitation, conflict capacity and response, meeting function, and strategy. His leading edge is Multi-Stakeholder Collaboration.