Positive Conflict…..Does Your Organization Invite the Elephant to the Table?

By Jennifer Card, M.Sc., Impact Coach

The start of the new year is a great time to clean-the-slate by leaning into the difficult conversations that your organization needs to have in order to confront conflict in a constructive way….not only will it help your organization to establish more trust, it will fuel innovation.
Typically, when we hear the word conflict, we immediately think: problem, but if navigated successfully, conflict can be a catalyst for positive change that is necessary in a relationship, or for a team or organization.

Conflict gets a bad rap; but conflict is merely a gap in communication where there are divergent views. If the differing views can constructively be brought into the fold of understanding to close the gap, it can then lead to creative problem-solving and innovation.

Our personal valences, personalities, histories, and biases only allow us to see through our lens, but if we can merge our view with someone else’s perspective then we might just be able to see a wider horizon.

At the core of effective communication, within organizations, is candor; candor can help to bring all of the information to the table. Depending on how passionate we are about our view, candor can also sometimes lead to conflict. However, as leaders, if we deconstruct the conflict down to its essence in order to look at the issue objectively, and in a rational and collaborative manner, we can then bring to the agenda what needs to be heard. It’s about looking to the bottom of the iceberg, and not just viewing what is above the surface.

Edmondson (1999) talks about the importance of psychological safety within teams and organizations (great TEDtalk!), in creating an environment of trust, where employees can feel ‘safe’ to say what needs to be said…this is all part of welcoming healthy conflict. Organizations without psychological safety may be missing crucial information in their internal feedback systems.

An environment with psychological safety allows the elephant in the room to be included in the conversation.

Having said this…not all conflict is necessary, pleasant or rational. Sometimes, people just flat-out lose their temper, inappropriately, but as a leader it’s important to understand why, and get to the root cause of those emotions. As an emotionally intelligent individual, it’s equally important to get our personal triggers and reactions in check which requires self-awareness.

In addition to self-awareness, approaching conflict with a positive intent, or solution-focused mindset will help shed light on the issue(s) at hand, while seeking to find a resolution. A leader must trust that conflict resolution is, in fact, a collaborative process toward organizational improvement.

As leaders, navigating candor, and conflict into a civilized disagreement (Parker, 2006) involves:

  • Approaching the issue with an analytic mindset
  • Remaining open to all points of view
  • Leaning into humour (when appropriate)
  • Realizing when your opinion is not in the majority viewpoint

I would also add that it’s important to remain in a state of humble inquiry (Schien, 2016) during the process in order to arrive to the situation without an agenda, and with a curious stance. As well, being able to listen …..real listening doesn’t mean waiting so that you can make your next point. Real listening is a two-way communication that ensures that everyone feels truly heard.

It is helpful to remember that listen and silent have the same letters.

Sometimes just allowing the issues to be aired, communicated and listened to in a constructive environment is enough to diffuse the conflict down to a healthy exchange of ideas.

Think of the last time that you were involved in a conflict that was resolved, what role did you play?….what did you learn? ….how was the organization improved?

References:
Edmondson, A. (1999). Psychological safety and learning behaviour in work teams. Administrative Science Quarterly. 44 (2), 350-383
Parker, G. (2006). What makes a team effective or ineffective? In J. Gallos (Ed.) Organization Development. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Schein, E. (2009). Helping: how to offer, give and receive help. San Francisco, CA: Barrett-Koehler.

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