“Marriage means expectations and expectations mean conflict” – Paxton Blair
Confession time: I am a conflict avoider. I dislike conflict and I know I am not alone. And I’ve come to realize that we all need to get over this aversion.
For the most part, we make conflict a bad thing to be avoided. We spend a lot of time and energy ducking disagreements and opposition. We avoid difficult people and challenging conversations for fear of the discomfort and the possibility of a deadlock.
Some firms appear to encourage conflict but in truth, it’s not in the aim of a healthy outcome. It is often in large hierarchical firms where status and ego are important. Conflict manifests in the form of bullying, shouting and being rude. At times, people who do this are held up in awe and somehow deified for having the courage to speak their mind. It’s nothing more than a sanctioned form of corporate bullying. This is not constructive conflict.
The lengths to which we go to avoid conflict can seem extreme. Companies will reorganize departments and processes to reduce the conflict and increase collaboration. When product development doesn’t get on with marketing, the operations are re-organized. When regional teams don’t get on with each other, we put in a layer of management to smooth the waters. Contrarian voices in teams are not invited to meetings. Challenging individuals are moved into a corporate version of a Siberian gulag.
And this is all exacerbated when different cultures are in play. Having worked in several countries, I’ve learned first-hand that the rules of engagement around tough discussions vary widely across continents.
Let me share a few examples I have seen of the cost of avoiding conflict.
An American software company decided to expand into Europe. They hired a local team and handed over a finalized go-to-market strategy to this team. Strong differences over the approach were voiced by the team on the ground. After much disagreement, the senior management rode roughshod over objections and forced through the strategy. The approach failed and it took the company three years to roll back and recover. While ultimate responsibility does lie with senior management, this an example of the cost of unresolved disagreements.
The second example is at a large multinational consulting firm. A senior partner disclosed to me that they hire junior staff all with the same Myers-Briggs profile. This created a homogenous pool of resources that essentially all behave in similar ways and are easy to manage. All well and good until it comes to promoting into the mid-layers of management or onto partner track where different profiles are required. At this point, the company experiences high staff turnover with its attendant costs. This company chooses hiring a homogenous work force to reduce the chance of conflict but it comes at a significant cost in the firm’s ability to grow.
This aversion to conflict doesn’t serve us.
My own view is that the skills to find alignment in difficult discussions are techniques we are never taught. We place a lot of status and kudos on ‘being right’. Whilst there is undoubtedly a great sense of pleasure in being right, we can become entrenched in our view. We become determined to win. And from that place, it’s very hard to resolve disagreements.
I propose that we adopt a perspective that holds that from conflict comes a richer conversation. Systems theory (Peter Senge, et al.) points out that conflict is a sign that something needs to change.
Disagreements are sparked by differences in perspective, competencies and experience. This is a good thing – there is plenty of evidence to show that diversity is invaluable to organization. From this disagreement comes new information and a much more valuable debate. Clashes are places for creative solutions as smart people make conscious trade-offs for the sake of the business.
We need to shift from a desire to win arguments to a willingness to resolve them. We can find alignment when we steer clear of making mandates and be clear on our request of what we want done.
Marshal Rosenburg’s work in nonviolent communication provides a rich source on how to do this differently. There are companies that recognize the importance of conflict – Intel teaches new staff a common method and language for conflict resolution.
We should embrace the value of constructive conflict and seek to increase our skills to manage conflict effectively.