Conflict itself is neither good nor bad. Positive or healthy conflict is the kind of disagreement that results in something beneficial. It is constructive in nature. It is the catalyst for new ideas, solves continuous problems, provides an opportunity for people and teams to expand their skills, and ignites creativity.
When differing or opposing ideas are explored with the right behaviours, a breakthrough of thinking can occur and relationships can be strengthened. In fact, healthy conflict the essence of hive mind thinking - where a group of people become aware of their commonality and think and act as a community, sharing their knowledge, thoughts, and resources.
Without conflict, you have “groupthink,” the mode of thinking in which individual members of small group of people (team) accepts a viewpoint or conclusion even when the members don't believe it to be valid or the right decision. It might feel efficient, but in reality you are stagnating progress, innovation and leads to mediocracy. It also leads to costly mistakes later down the line because the obvious faults or problems are not raised in advance.
When conflict is done positively, with the right behaviours and outcomes in mind, positive resolutions can be found, and in most cases, lead to growth, development and understanding among all the conflicting parties.
The problem is that we aren't generally taught how to do conflict well. In fact most of our lessons in conflict happen when we are children. Perhaps your parents taught you to win at all costs. Perhaps you were taught to compromise. Maybe you learned that conflict is scary and should be avoided at all costs. For some, conflict is just the way you engage in debates and discussions around the dinner table. We are all different, and when you have two people who have different beliefs and behaviours in conflict, things can get out of hand pretty quickly.
Take a moment to reflect on the following questions:
What are your beliefs and attitudes towards conflict?
How do these impact your behaviour and outcomes?
How did you learn these lessons?
Is this approach still serving you well?
Can you think of a time when you were in conflict, but a positive outcome came from it? What were the conditions to enable positive conflict?
There are a couple quick things that must be noted about conflict in order for it to be productive.
- Vulnerability-based trust is an absolute requirement for productive conflict - without trust, conflict quickly becomes defensive, fearful and a battle of power. When there is trust, each member knows that the conflict is not personal - instead it is a conflict around ideological thinking. The conflict is focused on getting to the best answer rather than ego or self-interest.
- Rules of engagement (a later lesson) need to be established about how conflict is done, the purpose, behaviours and was it OK and not OK
- Productive conflict is not about “winning an argument” but the “humble pursuit of truth.”
- It is uncomfortable for everyone, but not painful, so that shouldn’t prevent it from occurring.
Meetings are the normal place for decision making in most businesses. Where there is trust and productive conflict, members engage in debates, challenge and energise each other.
Everyone is engaged and pushing the solutions and best thinking forward until a decision is made. Where artificial harmony exists, meetings are dull, group think creeps in and the leader has to make all of the decisions and come up with all of the ideas.
Where conflict is mean spirited, it gets personal, argumentative and aggressive. Neither makes a good meeting. How your meetings go depends on the leaders behaviour and the team culture.