The Good, The Bad and The Ugly of Conflict in Organizations

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By: Stephanie Williams

Most people do not enjoy conflict, and yet, conflict is everywhere. Sometimes it is out in the open, rearing its head in heated arguments and personal insults. Other times, conflict shows itself indirectly through backstabbing and gossip. A great deal of the time, however, conflict lies under the surface, covered over by politeness and decorum stemming from a desire to preserve relationships and avoid making waves.

At its core, conflict is simply “difference,” difference in values, perspectives, ideas, opinions… almost anything. It is quite telling that the French word differend means “quarrel.” We may attach emotions – sometimes very strong ones – to differences we have with others, and that is when conflict feels so intense.

Conflict – that is, difference – is very important in organizations. Expression of different ideas and perspectives is vital for creativity and innovation. Differences are also essential for effective decision-making. Without different points of view and ideas out on the table, decisions suffer because they are made without all the relevant information or exploring various courses of action and their consequences.

How do you gain the benefits of conflict without the destructiveness that can sometimes result? First, unhealthy conflict – that is, conflict that is negatively charged and personally attacking – must be addressed and minimized. If people don’t have the skills or tools to work through conflict constructively, they need to learn. Sometimes it is necessary for a manager, HR professional or outside facilitator to step in to enable people to clarify the root of their difference and find common ground. So often, the underlying difference is nowhere near as severe as people assume. They simply need the opportunity, skills and courage to discover that and repair the relationship.

The other side of the coin is fostering constructive conflict which is to ensure that people speak up. I have found that the biggest barrier to healthy conflict is that it is silenced. People too often do not express their differences because they are afraid – afraid of being embarrassed, offending someone or even losing their job. They want to preserve relationships and avoid being rejected. But unexpressed conflict continues to live below the surface, giving rise to negative emotions such as anxiety, anger and resentment. Eventually these emotions cause disconnection in relationships. Others may sense this and more acts of silence follow, bringing more defensiveness and distrust. As a result, a destructive “silent spiral” is set in motion. Creating an environment where people are encouraged to speak up and deal openly and honestly with differences is essential to prevent this kind of destructive cycle.

In closing, I offer a few suggestions for avoiding the worst that conflict can bring and getting the most out of it instead:

  • Gain awareness of your own natural tendencies and style, as well as others’ tendencies and styles, for dealing with conflict.
  • Learn and use skills to effectively address conflict. Get help when needed.
  • Realize how important it is to speak up – for the good of your relationships, teams and organization. When you are afraid to express a difference, recognize your own personal power and go for it. (Smartly, of course! You may need to pick your battles and timing, and when you speak up, do so in a constructive manner.)
  • Create an environment of trust – the foundation of healthy conflict – within your teams and organization, whatever influence you have, so that people feel comfortable and safe to express themselves.
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