In the Presence of Conflict

“I don’t have any conflicts…. I get along with everybody!” This was the proud response of a participant in one of my recent Coach Dialogues about utilizing conflict. Their response signalled to me not that everything was fine, but that there were missing conversations—conversations that represent missed opportunities for growth and innovation. Sadly, this is a far too frequent norm in organizational relationships. People avoid conversations where conflict naturally and necessarily exists for the sake of “getting along”.

As leaders, the presence of conflict can conjure up anxiety and knee-jerk responses. Many of us have been oriented to believe that conflict is “bad”. We equate it with impolite behavior, trouble-making, not getting along, or being “ugly”. We want to resolve conflicts as quickly as possible.

Yet, whenever you get deeply committed, intelligent, well-intended people working together in a collaborative environment, there will be conflict. Conflict is normal. Necessary even. And as leaders, it’s one of the most valuable tools we have to solve problems and access innovation and creativity in an organization.

Fortunately, collaboration and conflict go hand in hand.

Collaboration is, by its very nature, conflictual. Teamwork involves having different observers with different responsibilities, priorities, points of view, accountabilities, and interpretations of what is required to achieve success. Collaboration requires the intention to come together to achieve something greater than we can as individuals. We collaborate with our differences—that’s what makes it collaboration. This coming together of differences, in and of itself, is a source of conflict.

A constructive way to be with conflict

Culture influences the way we relate to disagreements and discord.

My default way of engaging in discourse is passionate, intense, and committed. In my family, we “argue” with each other and it doesn’t necessarily mean anyone is wrong or angry. We can experience the full spectrum of emotions, including getting boisterous with each other, and relationships are not bruised. We recognize that intensity is about commitment—not temper.

In organizational environments, I observe that this way of productively engaging with each other’s passionately held points of view is often noticeably absent. The noise of people trying to be invisible as they tiptoe around each other speaks volumes to me. This intention to control our way of engaging in conflict has people circumventing each other at great mental and emotional cost. This is the source of things coming to a standstill. This is the source of trapped capacity within the organization.

We interpret the absence of conflict to mean we’re safe, we’re getting along, and nobody’s wrong.

But it’s not that we don’t like each other or that we don’t get along. It’s not that we’re not committed to each other’s success: we are. It’s that we’re afraid to have discordant conversations with each other.

It feels uncomfortable to talk about our disagreements—like adolescent dating. The risk seems huge and we don’t quite know how to proceed. So we hang out on the fringes: desiring magic and doing everything we can to avoid feeling awkward.

The challenges of engaging collaboratively are many. We can misread passion as anger. We can get hooked on where the other person is wrong. We can trap ourselves in a victim’s story of being wronged. Even when we have agreements in place in our relationships, we can inadvertently trigger the “conflict avoidance response” by simply questioning something. Our desire to be liked, trusted, and highly thought of: all these can feel like they’re hanging in the balance of a conversation that looks like conflict.

Breaking down conflict avoidance

It is a leader’s job to initiate the conversations that others are afraid to have…and to stay in these conversations until they are complete.

When I’m coaching senior leaders, we often start by noticing where they’re experiencing anxiety or recoiling from disagreement. I recognize that people’s default orientation to conflict can vary widely. Surprisingly, many enormously successful executives have actually been rewarded throughout their careers for avoiding it. Others can be traumatized at the mere suggestion of having a conversation with someone whom they perceive as potentially threatening or simply possessing a different point of view. So we work together to shift their perspective, notice their energy, and observe their interpretations. We step back from any right/wrong position they may have taken. All this before we look at the details of their current situation or start to envision ideal scenarios.

So when it comes to conflict, we have the opportunity to define our relationships relative to conflict in order to preemptively support and sustain the conversations that will come up in committed, collaborative relationships.

Having the conversation and staying in it looks “courageous” to people externally. Next month we’ll look at how to easily have these missing conversations.