The Gift of Conflict

Let me start by saying that I’m not an advocate of conflict. I’m especially not a fan of conflict that turns personal or even physical. But, in my 20+ years of managing projects and teams of varying size and personalities, I’ve had to extend effort, and sometimes great effort, managing conflict. As uncomfortable as conflict can be, it can also be a gift.

As Americans, we generally view conflict as negative. Conflict comes with the real or perceived end goal of defeating an opponent. It’s an “I Win You Lose” mentality. Someone comes out the victor and the other defeated. Or, we avoid conflict altogether. In that case, we stew in our anger, wishing we could unleash on the other person but knowing that conflict would make things uncomfortable for both of us.

But, what if we changed our view? What if instead, we looked at it as a gift? What if we looked at is as an opportunity to discuss our differences and strengthen our relationship with others? Doesn’t make conflict seem so bad, does it!?

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I’ve classified office conflict into two categories; professional and personal. Professional conflict is when two or more co-workers disagree on an approach or method to complete work. I see this as “healthy conflict.” In the IT world, think of two Enterprise Architects agreeing on a new application (they very rarely do). Or, in the construction world, an architect and designer. I’ve seen disagreements between these be professional and eventually they come to an agreement. If they’re struggling with an agreement, ask for help from a third party.

Personal conflict is when someone doesn’t like someone else “just because.” These types on conflict must be handled quickly and aggressively. Even though professional conflict can impact the team’s morale, personal can destroy it. I’ve litterally had one team member dislike another because of their hair! Another because they chewed gum. Little things can turn big, so resolve them quickly.

There are a few reasons why I believe conflict is beneficial for the team.

First, conflict avoids groupthink. Groupthink happens when the team makes decisions as a group that discourages creativity. If everyone agrees on the wrong path, it’s still the wrong path. Having the right level of conflict helps the team see things from different angles. I’ve had to introduce strong personality members into a team where groupthink was prevalent.

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Next, as the conflict gets resolved, the team members take greater ownership of the solution. Once the team has had the opportunity to disagree, they work collaboratively on a solution and next steps. Because the team came up with these, there’s greater ownership and accountability to get them done.

Finally, there is open and honest communication on the team. Team members aren’t afraid to talk about their concerns. There’s better listening. Teams that are OK with conflict collaborate and get more done.

Healthy conflict increases team effectiveness. Don’t be afraid to allow professional conflict on your team and eliminate personal quickly. Look at conflict as a gift, one that will allow your team to perform better.

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