Throughout our careers, we have all been a part of organizations where conflicts existed. Department leaders conduct subtle warfare to protect their interests and the fiefdoms they have built. Individuals pitch personal interests, clashes occur around strong personalities or unresolved, long-standing grudges exist. Having witnessed the destructive nature of these situations, we can agree that this type of conflict is harmful in moving a business or organization forward. “According to Forbes, workers who take time off because of stress, anxiety, or a work conflict will be off the job for about 21 days. Moreover, the typical manager spends 25-40 percent of her time dealing with workplace conflicts. Just think about how much productivity is being wasted!”
However, remember the old adage of “forming, storming, norming, performing”. This is a formula, which continues to work in forming and developing healthy teams. Conflict is a critical part of the successful evolution of an effective, high performance team. The willingness to disagree, to make ourselves vulnerable and to admit that we do not have the right answers is a hallmark for a healthy team. A strong team comes from trusting each other, hashing out differences and giving individuals space to be wrong. In addition, when there is trust, people are willing to pursue the right answers even if it does not fit their personal opinion. The actor and writer, Robert Townsend says, “A good manager doesn’t try to eliminate conflict; he tries to keep it from wasting the energies of his people. If you are the boss and your people fight you openly when they think that you are wrong, that is healthy.”
An effective leader and manager knows that healthy conflict, managed in the right way, is good for people and companies. Conflict can encourage open mindness, raise questions, build relations, avoid stagnation and encourage change. The key is for a leader to know how to manage the conflict so it can serve, as a catalyst for change not hinder it and to address issues as opposed to people. In one of my client organizations, a conflict existed between two vice presidents on how to recruit much needed engineering talent for the organization. This was critical to the business because turnover in engineers was approximately 20% and critical client projects were not properly staffed. The philosophical conflict was over retaining recruitment in the operations group or outsourcing it to another division, which primarily focused on recruiting technical talent for other subsidiaries. The conflict created a chasm between the two groups. Finally, the two vice presidents had a meeting with influential leaders in both organizations and decided to conduct a 6-12 month pilot, outsourcing the recruiting of critical engineering positions to the other division. Resolution of the conflict resulted in recruitment of the right engineering talent for client projects and reduction in turnover among engineering talent.
While on the surface it seems undesirable, correctly managed conflict can provide a source of growth and creativity within a company. What matters is not whether conflict does or does not exist. It does in any organization. What is important is whether leaders and teams are ready to handle it. Companies that understand how to strategically approach and manage healthy conflict build long-term cohesiveness and propel the business forward in meeting its short and long-term goals. How do you view conflict and how do you handle conflict?