Why You Should Encourage Conflict

Great organizations aren't devoid of conflict; they embrace it.

Many business leaders imagine that success is harmonious and creativity friction free. They could not be more wrong.

All organizations have conflict. That's inevitable when you bring people together. In the best companies, where a wide diversity of personalities and disciplines work together, conflict isn't just natural--it's productive. That happens only when people know how to handle it well.

In most businesses, people don't know what to do with discord. In a Roffey Park survey, 57% of managers reported that "inaction" was their organization's main method of conflict resolution, and cited "avoidance" and "pretending it isn't there" as a regular course of action. Sound familiar?

Rather than address a problem with a colleague, 35% of managers say they'd rather parachute jump, 27% would rather shave their head for charity, and 8% would rather eat bugs.

But the cost of unresolved conflict is immense. Experts estimate the cash costs at billions of dollars, and health care professionals say it is a major source of stress, burnout, harassment, and sabotage.

The big problem with conflict isn't the conflict itself but the fear and anger it invokes when left unresolved. Most people are afraid to wade into an argument because they don't feel confident they will be able to manage it, and they're afraid they'll become embroiled in something they can't control and are unlikely to win.

The solution to that, of course, isn't to keep avoiding the problems. It's to train people how to deal with conflict effectively, calmly, and fairly. Yet only about a third of managers have any training in coping with conflict of any kind.

I spent a day recently, working with the Centre for Effective Dispute Resolution in London, on a workshop training all kinds of executives how to handle the conflicts they encounter regularly: pay and performance disputes, vendor relationships, project management. All the participlants were seasoned professionals. They all encountered the same kinds of conflicts routinely. Not one had ever received any training in how to resolve them.

In even the best-run organization, conflict is a fact of life. We train people to be expert in managing technology, numbers, finance, and the law. But this most fundamental characteristic of human interaction--conflict--is something we are somehow just supposed to figure out as we go along. But we don't. And not knowing how to handle it, we prefer to ignore it and hope it goes away.

The bad news is that it won't go away; unresolved conflict festers and grows. The good news is that it doesn't have to be that way.

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