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Conflict… useful or not?

Oh, yes it is …Oh, no it isn’t …

Well, it would be remiss of me not to allude to the season’s most anticipated lines … wouldn’t it? 

Oh, yes it would …Oh, no it wouldn’t …, etc!

Today’s blog is intended as a thought jostler... not to posit a right or wrong answer, instead to awaken our senses to what might be possible, what we might avoid, or miss even, if we do not embrace the concept of conflict.

It seems to me that the word conflict has, historically, and certainly in the more recent past, been given a bad rap. Newscasters speak of conflict in reference to war and civil unrest which, technically, is an accurate use of the word, yet somehow in this context it appears more foreboding than if we speak of conflict as a state of mind in which a person experiences a clash of opposing feelings or needs…

There is a divide between people who think of conflict as potentially aggressive and therefore unhelpful and those who believe it to be a useful tool to disrupt thinking and behaviours in order to stoke the creative fires within us.

Perhaps the answer isn’t black and white – perhaps the question is not about whether conflict is useful or not, maybe it’s more about how and when to employ it … elegantly?

Someone once told me a story about a prominent business leader (they couldn’t remember who, and even without attachment to an actual person this metaphor remains powerful to my mind) who at the end of a board meeting asked: “So, are we all agreed?” To which the resounding answer was yes by his fellow board members. At which point the business leader retorted … “Then, we are not doing our jobs properly…”. In his mind, it seems, conflict and debate were deemed to be healthy, necessary even, to make certain that boardroom decisions were robust.

Patrick Lencioni in his book – The 5 Dysfunctions of a Team – asserts that if a team experiences a fear of conflict then dysfunction will be present. Teams that seek high performance are able to experience robust conflict and debate with the focus remaining on the subject being discussed and not veering towards either, unhelpful, end of a spectrum that spans from ‘artificial harmony’ to ‘mean spirited personal attack’. Balancing conflict in the centre of this spectrum and being able to engage in great discussion about the merits of an idea moves teams towards outcomes that everyone, even if the idea was ‘not invented here’, can get behind and understand to be the most appropriate to meet the need.

The moral here is that homogenous thinking delivers vanilla results and that just doesn’t ‘taste’ as good as it might if it had other flavours mixed in and a few sprinkles of choice lightly dusted across the top…and the ability to embrace conflict may just deliver this additional ‘sparkle’.

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Posted on Thu, December 11, 2014 in Coaching Organisational Development
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