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Is All Conflict Destructive?

Do you choose to embrace conflict? Or do you avoid conflict at all costs? While avoidance sounds like a mature plan, it is not always the best approach for growth and progress in relationships and organizations. In Patrick Lencioni’s book "The Five Dysfunctions of a Team", one of the dysfunctions outlined is the lack of conflict. If a team or organization cannot engage in healthy conflict to ensure that input is given by all in critical discussions, it is possible to completely miss the mark or even destroy the relationships of the team members.

Many organizations and teams engage in "false harmony" or otherwise fail to address concerns out of a fear of confrontation or hostility. But, often these intentions backfire, creating wider chasms. Those involved shut down completely or move on to greener pastures. This does not build trust or a strong team.

Healthy conflict is necessary and brings with it many possible positive outcomes, here are a few…

  • Healthy conflict allows information to flow freely throughout the organization or team. When individuals are not afraid to speak, possible obstacles are uncovered, threats and trends are exposed, and limitations and opportunities are vetted out.
  • Healthy conflict brings about possibilities that might otherwise be unrealized or not taken advantage of.
  • Healthy conflict often reveals blind spots in an organization. It helps keep the team from failing to see possible dangers and snares.
  • Healthy conflict brings the team together. Everyone feels that they have a chance to be heard. This goes both from top to bottom and bottom to top.
  • Healthy conflict often comes about through setting clear expectations or exposing a lack of performance. This allows the person or team to grow if handled properly.

Healthy Conflict Is…

  • Engaging others in conversation
  • Finding out what people really think
  • Discovering other points of view
  • Sharing without the fear of reprisal
  • Discussing and then getting commitment on direction
  • Observing others’ reactions and probing to seek understanding

Healthy Conflict is Not…

  • A public, verbal flogging
  • Passive aggressive behavior
  • Meetings after the meeting to reset the decisions made
  • Aggressive and inappropriate language
  • Surprise attacks and fly-away meetings (i.e., when someone "drops a bomb" and does not stick around to make sure that there is understanding by all and to discuss the next steps)

Ways to Encourage Healthy Conflict

  • Mine for it in meetings by asking open-ended questions such as… "What might get in the way of our success on this project?" or "How does this align with what everyone is working on?"
  • Read others’ body language, especially when leadership is discussing a new initiative, directing work activities, or making a change. Often what is not being vocalized can be seen in people’s body language.
  • Prep for meetings by providing participants with an agenda and an appropriate amount of information on the topics. Encourage questions prior to the meeting.
  • Facilitate the group discussion so that not only the extroverts contribute but also the introverts.
  • Follow up with those involved, particularly those who do not readily share their views in a group setting. Find out what they really think.
  • Thank those who provide a different view and note the contribution, even if the information is not ultimately used for the current situation.
  • Recognize when there is a conflict and use it as a learning experience that will make the team better.

Without healthy conflict an organization can unknowingly fall prey to its own shortcomings. How will you encourage healthy conflict in your organization and team? What new opportunities for doing so are in front of you this week?

Thanks to Eric Merz of Eric A. Merz Consulting for contributing this article.