Why we shouldn’t fear conflict at work?

Fear of conflict at work

Have you ever wondered why some meetings are engaging but others lack even the tiniest bit of energy?

Why some teams thrive in creativity while others are stagnant for months if not years?

Why some companies are the technological vanguard of the world while others just can’t reach a certain level of innovation and fall in mediocrity?

There is one keyword which can help us to understand the difference — this word is conflict.

When I started describing the dysfunctions of a team a few weeks ago, the first issue that I mentioned was The Absence of Trust. When teams lack vulnerability-based trust, their members conceal their weaknesses, judge others, hesitate to offer help and do dozens of other things which eventually cause the team’s health to deteriorate. On the other hand, healthy and trusting teams build up a culture of openness, feedback, and knowledge sharing. They make everyone more confident, safer and happier. Finally, they lay the foundations for the fight against the second important dysfunction and the subject of today’s article — The Fear of Conflict.

Maybe conflict isn’t the best word here — ultimately it does sound quite bad. There are conflicts between countries; there are conflicts between family members and none of them sound like something which we shouldn’t be fearful of. Nowadays, when we talk about “The New Age Agile Zen” organizations we prefer words like consensus, discussion, and dialogue, rather than conflict. Conflicts are ugly and scary, and should be avoided no matter the cost. But should they?

Conflict cartoon

At first, let’s draw a line between conflict and trust. As Lencioni writes is his book: “If we don’t trust one another, then we aren’t going to engage in open, constructive, ideological conflict. And we’ll just continue to preserve a sense of artificial harmony.” Take a look at the words he used to describe the conflict. Open, constructive, ideological. Would we use the same words? Open — of course!; ideological — I guess so. But constructive? Constructive conflict looks like an exotic oxymoron.

But people don’t only dislike conflicts because they relate it to the lack of constructivism and agreement — features so commonly attributed to politicians. Conflicts make people uncomfortable, and the majority of people I know, when they can choose between comfort and discomfort, prefer the former. We are somewhat lazy, so it is a natural reaction. When we engage in conflict the level of adrenaline increases, blood pressure rises, the heart rate skyrockets, we begin to sweat, feel dryness in our mouths. Some people find it attractive, but many (including me) prefer when the blood pressure is normal, the voice is not trembling, and the hands are not shaking. We are the communication pacifists; we prefer peace. If the fear of conflict is a preference for peace, does it mean that conflict, in and of itself, is equal to war?

People tend to relate heated disputes to aggressiveness, but it is a psychological blind alley. Why? When we equate conflict to aggressiveness, we can then divide human beings into two categories.

Tlouis litthe people in the first category love the state of being in conflict. They thrive when they feel this rush, being a wolf on a hunt. We have all seen (in movies, I hope!) “Louis Litt Type of” bullies (called by mistake managers) who yell at subordinates for not meeting deadlines. They are the Category One: modern corporate psychopaths. When conflict arises, they feel excited.

 

The second category consists of the people who feel safe in their comfort zones. They are not necessarily victims. They are people who either don’t feel comfortable in potentially aggressive situations or just don’t believe that energetic, ideological discussion will ever lead to any constructive conclusions. So, when conflict emerges, they back off.

When you have companies, teams, or families which only consist of these two types of people you have a recipe for stagnation, decay or some other disaster. You have toxic teams full of complaints with dozens of unresolved issues; you have families where one spouse is permanently unhappy due to some buried disagreements; you have companies where meritocracy is disregarded, and individuals who scream louder drive the group toward specific decisions.

Fortunately, there is a third option: a category of people, who give us hope. These are the people who simply don’t believe that conflicts should be about being aggressive versus defensive; being damaging and indecisive, being all about personal traits and not ideas. They know that conflicts can be provocative, energetic, creative, vivid, substantive, conclusive… and healthy.

Conflict - how to solve one in a teamIf our team has to design the next big thing, how can we execute such a process without some energetic dispute? If we talk honestly about the very foundations of our relationships can we do this without strong opinions and trust-based but provocative confrontation? Healthy conflict is the catalyst which drives the real change in our environment. It pushes us from the Land of Artificial Harmony to the Edge of the Chasm — which, counterintuitively, is a good thing. It helps us to discuss issues more quickly, without collateral damage. It opens up the true debate, prevents us from avoiding difficult topics and releases the tension which comes from silent disagreement.

 

So, yes — conflicts are a powerful tool! But, as always, with great power comes great responsibility. Conflict, when used inappropriately, can cause more harm than good. When people in your team or company yell at each other all the time and discussions, even though heated, don’t result in any constructive outcome there is a probability that something has gone wrong. So, how can we (as leaders, owners or senior team members) make sure that the conflicts which exist are good and not bad? Here are some suggestions:

  • Be empirical and start small. Start with less controversial discussions and see how it goes. Is the level of trust high enough to engage in more serious debates? If not, go back to the trust-building exercises described here.
  • Teach the team about Non-Violent Communication. Non-Violent Communication is a term coined by Marshall Rosenberg. It describes not only the healthy philosophy of person-to-person interaction but also defines a simple framework to engage in healthy communication.
  • Become a Conflict Miner — a person who extracts buried disagreements. When you notice that someone doesn’t agree, but, at the same time, is remaining silent, ask out loud about their opinion — “John, you look unconvinced! What do you think about the idea?”. Then, rotate the role of Conflict Miner — let everyone in the team participate.
  • Be a gentle reminder. Whenever the team discusses important issues, and the conflict drifts from vivid but healthy discussion to personal, predator-predator or predator-victim fight, intervene and remind everyone what our purpose is and why we need healthy conflicts.
  • Define a “stop word” to use within the team whenever someone violates the rules of discussion or fails to take advantage of non-violent communication. Allow people to speak freely, but give them tools to feel safe no matter what.

With these few tools at hand, we can finally start getting rid of the fear of conflict, and allow our teams, companies, and communities to thrive. Unhealthy conflicts or a lack of conflicts can cause teams to either stagnate or fall apart; healthy conflicts are the catalysts of change which can give teams a breath of fresh air. They are also (of course!) a good foundation to take care of yet another dysfunction — a dysfunction called The Lack of Commitment.

To be continued!

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