Conflict isn’t a 4 letter word

Walking through the front door of the office you can already hear them. They’re in the kitchen, cup of coffee in hand, voices beginning to raise to volumes that make them them noticeable in the rooms at the other end of the corridor. One has a whiteboard marker in their right hand, feverishly scribbling on the board in front of him, going over and over the line of the arrow pointing to a different group of words. The other’s brow is furrowed in frustration, shaking her head in small jerky movements as she crosses her arms and leans back on her foot, ready to take aim…

“I see what you’re saying, but…”

“Where does the process sit now…?”

“Why can’t we….?”

“But what if….?”

The marker pen is swapped between both of them as they outline their own points of view. Not in the hope of convincing the other though, but in the process of discovering the solution to a problem.

To an observer it sounds like an argument, difficult conflict between colleagues. And conflict is a nasty word, isn’t it? We try and avoid it at all costs. But conflict isn’t always ‘the big bad’. Sometimes it can be fuel to progressive, dynamic and fruitful processing for solutions.

Instead of conflict, it’s called productive quarrelling. And it’s powerful.

I used to work with a boss I regularly butted heads with, in a good way. Not because either of us was wrong, but because he usually saw things from a different perspective from me. Every time we spoke about key topics, we both spoke with absolute passion. Over time, as we became used to each other’s working styles, communications and motivations etc, we developed a short hand of speaking, often predicting where the logic of our discussions would take us before words were actually spoken. A coffee brainstorm was always dynamic, loud and constructive. But to the untrained eye it would have looked like conflict in its worst state.

As leaders we are trained to deal with conflict, to identify it early and address it professionally to diffuse the situation. The problem is that not all conflict is negative. If we don’t have diversity of thought, we don’t have growth and progress. Instead of creative brainstorming, silence would fill team meetings as workers waited to hear what the boss wants and how he wants it done.

So, how do we encourage productive quarrelling without it going too far into the conflict zone? Here are a few suggestions…

  • First, its all about the environment you set. Collaboratively develop a set of standards and values for the team, encouraging contributions from everyone. Document these, making sure they reflect the organisations code of conduct expectations too.
  • Encourage differences of opinion and productive challenge. Embrace opinions and ideas other than your own, modelling how to respond positively to opposition to your suggestions. Actively and positively reinforce contributions made by each member of the team. You don’t have to agree with them, you just have to appreciate their inclusion.
  • Set strategic goals for projects, but don’t dictate how they should be achieved. Instead, be proactive about team led activity development and prioritisation of tasks to achieve milestones.
  • Embrace diversity in your recruitments and actively seek opportunities to expose your team to alternate ways of working and different thinking patterns through professional development and networking.

At the end of the day, productive quarrelling can be extremely beneficial, invigorating and can light a fire of focus in people, as long as there are boundaries in place, and respect between colleagues.

CrisMarie Campbell & Susan Clarke believe you can also use conflict as an energy source for teams. Grab a cup of coffee and sit back to listen to their TedTalk. The video is 20 minutes long, but the important section begins just before the 10 min mark. Feel free to skip ahead to there.

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