Conflict! I get a sinking feeling in my stomach when I read the word.
How many times have you heard managers, leaders and teachers speak about the damage of conflict? Can’t we all just get along? It makes sense. In a world of countless wars and disagreements, we are sensitive to the cost of conflict and none of us wants this experience. In business, lack of consensus prevents progress and can delay a project or destroy a company.
Why We Avoid It Social psychologists tell us that there is an inherent drive in most of us to try to establish harmony. In fact, we will do this at nearly any cost. Many of us stay silent, trying not to rock the boat. Even those whose points of view are extremely strong and sometimes overbearing are trying with force to end conflict. These approaches are noble sentiments, but poor strategies that fail to reap the true value of conflict.
A New Philosophy I offer the thought that embracing conflict is extremely valuable to the creative and problem solving process and reaps many rewards. It is our inability to participate in the disagreement process that needs evolving, not the avoidance of conflict itself!
Our experience tells us that unresolved disagreements are an enormous obstacle to progress and moving forward. From marriages to business partnerships to team dynamics, we have all experienced the negativity and cost that unresolved conflict can create. The keyword there is “unresolved.” We are so used to the process of disagreements being negative and unenjoyable that we avoid the entire disagreement process altogether. But what if we shift our point of view to see the process as highly productive and acquire skills to make the process a respectful and creative experience? Webster defines conflict as: “strong disagreement between people, groups, etc., that results in often angry argument”. I offer a new definition:
Conflict - Strong disagreement between people, groups, etc., that reveals novel, unique and invaluable insights and perspectives that can be used to identify problems and create solutions.
How does that feel? What if we approached conversations and meetings hoping to disagree, even excited to, so that we could reap the benefits of a more holistic view of a problem or situation? What if we got excited about the fact that we would learn something new or gain a new perspective from someone who saw the world with a completely different view from us?
Overcoming Fear Perhaps a part of the challenge we face in the conflict process is our fear of being wrong, or our need to be right. In an earlier article we talked about the desire and need to be perfect and the costs associated with those attitudes. The causes may be many, but the solution is the same! By embracing new values and shifting our perspectives, we can recreate our disagreement experience. We have to trust the process and see value in each other's unique points of view. We have to realize that the group mind is a powerful force that when leveraged can do anything. Let’s disagree and embrace conflict! As our founder and CEO John Simanowitz often says, "Get to conflict early." Conflict is nothing to be afraid of. It just takes a shift.
The Bottom Line If we are not embracing conflict, we are not leveraging the full value of everyone's unique experience and points of view. In fact, we are most likely hindering the solution that we need in any given situation. Ron Ashkenas and Lisa Bodell authored an insightful article in The Harvard Business Review discussing four strategies for making conflict a healthy part of your work culture.
Get empowered! Invite those around you to disagree. Be respectful, but let people know that you expect them to disagree with you. Tell your clients, family and friends about healthy conflict and encourage opposing viewpoints. This will give those around you permission to overcome their fear.
The most creative, innovative and highest quality works are often results of great disagreement and conflict. The creative process is a dance of opposing forces that ultimately unify as one. Diamonds are forged through this process, so don’t be afraid to use it in your work and your life to make something truly awesome.
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