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Daily Leadership Thought #186 – Conflict Can Be Good, Even Essential

August 3, 2011

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I am very troubled these days by our collective inability to disagree. Instead of simply seeing things from a different point of view, the other side is demonized and sometimes even subject to ridicule.  How many times have you heard someone say, “They just don’t get it…” as if the other person was missing the appropriate level of intellect to grasp the situation?   Even worse, there are many instances where the other side has no interest whatsoever in challenging their own assertions and ideas.  They are content instead to take an unyielding position that is based more on emotions than facts.

In organizations, as in democracies, the inability to foster constructive conflict is a troubling development.  To grow and get better, there needs to be disagreement about the best way to do things and where to find new answers to old problems.  Just as was the case with our Founding Fathers, the most effective groups and teams engage in thoughtful deliberations, weighing all sides of an issue.  Jefferson needed the help of Adams and Franklin and their perspective to draft the Declaration of Independence, even when the feedback hurt his feelings and rankled his own ideological perspective.   Ronald Reagan needed Tip O’Neill to balance his political agenda and vice versa.

We should build organizations and personally surround ourselves with people who challenge our contentions; otherwise, we are just creating fan clubs of like-minded individuals.  When the latter happens, we stop growing and start confining ourselves to the narrow passageway of limited thinking, paradoxically becoming increasingly vulnerable to the thoughts and actions of others who are more open-minded.  The goal of any individual or collection of individuals should be to evolve intellectually and broaden their perspective.   After all, change is our ever-present reality, not just a choice.

Of course, there are different levels of conflict.  Moreover, conflict simply for the sake of conflict is not only a waste of time but damaging to interpersonal relationships.   Unfortunately, we all know people who excel at this activity.   Conflict should also be about things that matter, not the trivial or unimportant, in those cases just trust the other person.  Moreover, conflict in its best form is issue driven, not personality driven. Always remember, it is the message not the messenger that is most important, despite what the media tries to instill in us!  Stay focused on the issue at hand and the related FACTS.  Avoid drawn out opinion-based discussions because they rarely move the other side and instead only strengthen their resolve.

Bottom line is that conflict always works best when it strives to improve the overall level of decision making by bringing all the facts to the surface and forcing the consideration of alternative perspectives before taking any significant action. Embrace conflict when much is at stake, avoid it when the stakes are relatively meaningless, and you will make better decisions and live a richer life.