Why The Word Conflict Gets A Bad Rap

A few weeks ago I conducted a conflict workshop for a client.  We began the meeting with a quick poll of the participants, by asking the following question:

If organizations were led in a more harmonious way void of conflict they would achieve better results.

I agree

I disagree

The results of the poll had 88% of participants disagreeing with the statement.  The group clearly recognized the value of conflict as a necessity to making better decisions, yet companies spend so much time and effort working to avoid conflict.  A Google search on the term "conflict avoidance training" returns 945,000 results.  If conflict leads to better decisions than why would an organization want to implement conflict avoidance training?

Conflict gets a bad rap.  A second activity that we conducted in the workshop as part of introductions asked each participant to share a synonym for the word CONFLICT.  While there were a few duplicates the twenty eight participants had very little trouble coming up with a long list of synonyms including terms like: debate, disagreement, quarrel, fight, war, misunderstanding, difference of opinion and many others.   For the second part of the activity we reviewed the list and as a group determined whether each word shared had a positive or negative connotation.  

Conflict Wordcloud

Out of the twenty eight words shared only four had positive connotations.  Those positive words shared as synonyms for CONFLICT were:  Opportunity, Possibility, Success, and Understanding.  With such negative connotations, it is no wonder that organizations focus so much attention on conflict avoidance.

Shifting ones paradigm to recognize a conflict as an opportunity can have a dramatically positive impact on how the conflict is addressed.  Instead of trying to avoid conflicts organizations begin to embrace conflict as the powerful decision making tool that it can be.  The absence of conflict often leads to group think where teams or organizations make decisions that are contrary to the decisions that members of the team or organization would make on their own.  This is a common yet dangerous outcome of not engaging in conflict.  

At Groove Management, we believe that conflict is a powerful decision making tool that teams can learn to leverage.  If you are feeling conflicted, then you are engaged.  That tension is a good thing.  When people avoid conflict they tend to be disengaged.  Employee engagement is one of the biggest issues that companies struggle to address.  We believe that there is a correlation between the level of engagement and the amount of conflict that exists in an organization.  Too little conflict is a sign of a lack of engagement, but at the other end of the spectrum too much conflict also lead to lower engagement.   It is important to strike a happy balance.

Learning to manage and leverage conflict is a skill.  The first step in learning to leverage conflict is to understand the various styles of dealing with conflict.  TheThomas Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument is an excellent tool that we utilize to help individuals and teams to identify their preferred styles of addressing conflict.  Conflict styles need to be situational, but learning to identify the various styles and when to use them is the first step in becoming adept in handling conflict.

Groove Management Conflict Workshop Journal

Our workshops focus on helping individuals and team to identify past conflict experiences in their learning journals and then gleaning the learnings from those experiences.  Teaching teams to look at the opportunities embedded in a conflict help them to more effectively handle the situation.  Using an interest based approach to negotiations teaches teams to separate the people from the problem.  A helpful image flips the traditional negotiation with opposing views on opposite sides of a table, to the problem on one side of a table and those tackling the problem sitting together.  Seems so simple, yet is a very powerful approach.

Attack the problem not the people

Next time your team sees a conflict brewing, shift your approach and view the impending conflict as an opportunity versus a threat.  By shifting the perspective of the team, you will shift the potential outcome to a much more positive one.