In my 18 years of experience as an executive leader in non-profit and higher education settings, I have seen a lot of conflict. I was a Department Director when half of our staff went on strike and half of our staff kept working. I served as a hearing officer for disputes between labor and management. I had work teams reporting to middle managers who couldn't get aligned in their purpose and were even working at cross purposes.

But here's the thing. Most of those conflicts yielded very important results. We learned about each other. We tested competing ideas and often came up with better new ideas. We cried and got angry and stretched ourselves to listen deeply during those conflicts and realized we could still respect each other and work together. In fact, in some instances our respect for each other deepened.

I have seen first-hand how conflict is necessary for workplaces to flourish. And I'm not alone. In one study, 75% of employees surveyed said that conflict in their workplace resulted in positive outcomes that would not have been achieved if the conflict hadn't occurred.

To be clear, conflict handled poorly can cause real damage to organizations. According to one study in the UK, 40% of employees involved in conflict saw a decrease in their work motivation and 56% described feeling stressed, anxious and/or depressed. And not only do the side effects of poorly handled conflict hurt emotionally, but they also hurt financially. According to one estimate, conflict costs American industries $359 billion per year.

So, what do we mean by the term "conflict?" Here's one way to think about it. Conflict occurs when your values, interests, perceptions, goals etc. are different from mine, AND the differences cause discomfort. I may love the color green and you may love blue, but that doesn't mean we're in conflict. However, if you think the company should initiate a hiring freeze and I desperately need people and think a hiring freeze is an awful idea, now we have a conflict. And the success of our organization will depend on how we share and compare ideas, and how we decide.

Many leaders think that conflict should be prevented wherever possible. If it isn't obvious already, I disagree completely. Instead, workplaces should focus on creating conditions where people and organizations can learn the most from conflict. This doesn't mean that everyone will come out of the conflict happy. But it can mean that organizations can move more effectively and efficiently towards their strategic goals by leveraging the power of productive conflict.

So how can individuals and organizations engage in productive conflict? It really depends on the nature of the conflict. But I have found that leaders who engage in conflict productively share certain understandings about themselves and their workplaces. Here are a few:

  • I have a valid and valuable perspective. My expertise and experiences have given me a point of view which can be beneficial to others and my organization. I don't need others to validate my value.
  • I can benefit from the perspectives of others. I have something to learn from the expertise and experiences of others, even if (especially if!) I don't agree with them.
  • I am sometimes wrong, and when I am, my self-worth isn't at stake. Even though I've risen through the ranks because of my achievements, I recognize that those achievements were only possible because I took risks, and made mistakes, and held incorrect opinions.
  • Respect is given, not earned. I can't make anyone respect me, but I can act in ways that are worthy of respect. It is up to others to decide if they will respect me.
  • Past conflicts in my life may influence how I handle conflict. The strength of the emotions I feel in a conflict may not be proportionate to the circumstances of the conflict. I don't need to be controlled by past events, and I may need to re-examine those past events to see if more healing is possible.

So, with these understandings in mind, what can leaders do to create conditions for productive conflict? Here are just a few:

  • Listen actively. Be curious. Ask questions to better understand the other's perspective. Listen to understand.
  • Use "I" statements. When expressing your perspective, own it. "I think," "I feel," "I believe" is way more helpful than "many think" or "some believe."
  • Breathe. When people are in conflict their brains are quickly and constantly evaluating whether they should "fight or flight" and breathing can become very quick and shallow. (This is known as amygdala hijacking.) A good way to stay present in a conflict and increase your ability to listen rationally is to take deep, slow breaths.
  • Propose Solutions. In a conflict it can be tempting to focus on problems: the problems in someone else's argument or the problems with the team or the reasons why things are terrible. Certainly, it's important to understand the problems. However, it is also helpful to focus on what you and others can do to make things better.
  • Be open to changing your mind. Be a scientist. Continue to gather evidence that supports or refutes your current theories. When the evidence starts contradicting your theories, change them!

If you or your organization want to get the most out of conflict, we have the expertise to help you turn conflict into invaluable learning!

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