That’s not a typo in the title. There is such a thing as productive conflict. Conflict doesn’t have to be hurtful or damaging. We’re not often led to believe it, but it’s true. In business, the word ‘conflict’ is often synonymous with ‘fight.’
Let’s say you’re on a conference call and a client questions a line item in your budget. The physiological response is almost immediate. You feel the rush of adrenaline through your veins just like when you’re in a fight or flight situation. In your head, you start thinking through how you can push back on the client to hold your ground.
This is how we react to the seeds of conflict in business.
It normal, so you’re not an oddball if you’ve experienced these feelings in a business situation before.
Reframe Conflict’s Purpose
To get to a productive definition of conflict, you need to change how you perceive its purpose. Productive conflict:
- Is NOT about winning and losing
- Is NOT about posturing for power
- Is NOT about instilling fear and intimidation
Outcomes like winning, posturing, and intimidating reflect a more traditional perspective on the purpose of conflict in the workplace. As you aim to practice productive conflict, however, consider these alternative ways to reframe its purpose. Productive conflict:
- Keeps everyone synchronized
- Reduces pressure and tension
- Is evidence of trust within the organization
When productive conflict happens, it can actually strengthen your organization instead of tearing it down from the inside out.
The Culture of Fear Factor
Changing the way you perceive conflict is the first step in taking it to a productive level. The next thing you must do is reduce the fear of conflict that often accompanies a twisted view of its purpose.
You see fear of conflict show up in organizations where no one ever disagrees with or offers alternative ideas to leadership. You see it when gossip groups criticize leaders in private. It shows up when you see team members leave the room whenever leadership walks in.
In each of these cases, it is clear that:
- No one views conflict as a potentially helpful tool.
- Everyone is afraid to engage in it.
Reducing fear of conflict is a must if you want it to be productive. To change this cultural perception, though, you have to consistently model productive conflict for the organization.
Make Conflict Productive
It is difficult to actually deal with points of tension or frustration in a different (productive) way. We are conditioned to do what we’ve always done or what we’ve been taught to do over time. To break the cycle of unproductive conflict, here’s what you need to do:
Schedule issue meetings
- Block out specific time each week where you invite the team to talk about specific issues they have. It’s even better if you have a document or mechanism for submitting these issues ahead of time so you can put some structure to the meetings. Focus on solving the issue for all time. Make sure your team understands what the real underlying issue is, and always walk away with a solution or at least the next step for solving the issue.
Focus on issues, not people
- When you have issue meetings, only speak to the issue at hand and not the people who embody the issue. For example, if missing deadlines is the issue, don’t bag on the individuals who struggle with this. Rather, announce that there is an issue with missed deadlines and then ask the group what they feel can be done to help. When you address the issue instead of the person, it removes the fight or flight response and reduces defensiveness. As Patrick Lencioni says in his book, Five Dysfunctions of a Team, “When we fail to disagree with people around ideas and issues, it ferments into conflict around them as a person.”
Avoid straw-man arguments
- Straw-man arguments are accusatory and leading questions that appear to address an issue. Unfortunately, they often feel attacking on a personal level. For example don’t ask the group, “Why do you always miss deadlines? Do you not care about having a job?” Instead, ask the team something like, “We struggle to hit deadlines. I’d like to get your thoughts on what’s causing that.”
Having productive conflict is but one of the ways you can start to build a higher performing team. There are many other things you can do to conquer the five dysfunctions of a team, but first you need to know the signs and symptoms of the dysfunctions. I cover each of them in my free Dysfunction Spells Doom eBook, so feel free to check it out. And if you need more personal, guided help digging deeper into developing your culture, I’m only a click away.