November 2013

Leveraging the Power of Conflict (Part I of IV)

by Academy Leadership

Is Conflict Desirable?

"Better debate a question without settling it than settle a question without debating it." -Joseph Joubert

Conflict seems to come with being a leader in organizations today. Although conflict is practically impossible to avoid and, if not actually undesired, it is generally uncomfortable. However, conflict is often a key element in achieving the change that leaders and organizations desire. Conflict can serve as a spark to challenge assumptions, inspire dialogue and initiate new thinking and operating. These potential benefits are the reason that leaders should become familiar and comfortable with handling conflict, particularly given that effective conflict management often means the difference between success and failure.

Various sources estimate that leaders spend from 20% to 50% of their time dealing with conflict. There is general agreement that leaders at lower levels deal with more conflict than those at higher levels. Given the rate of change that current and future conditions demand, organizations must anticipate and adapt much more quickly than ever before. It is inevitable that as the pace of change increases, the potential for conflict will rise as well. People will disagree over what changes are required, what work must be done, how the work should be accomplished and what strategies are required to meet the demands of the market and to reach organizational goals. When leaders appropriately manage conflict and leverage its benefits, conflict will lead to enhanced organizational performance. Managed conflict can become a positive and motivating force for continuous improvement.

Assumptions About Conflict

Each leader will approach conflict in a different way based on their assumptions about conflict. There are at least three general assumptions about conflict that will lead to totally different approaches to its management.

  1. Conflict is harmful and can and should be avoided. Leaders with this assumption believe that conflict among people will cause lasting bad relationships and negative work environment. They will approach managing conflict by eliminating its sources. Leaders who hold this assumption place more importance on removing the conflict than in dealing with it. In extreme cases, the result may be to separate or build barriers between individuals or groups who are in conflict, thus eliminating or limiting interaction. This outcome may be at the expense of organizational effectiveness and fails to remove the source of conflict.

  2. Conflict is negative but inevitable. Leaders with this assumption are similar to those above except that they realize conflict is bound to occur in organizations and must be dealt with. These leaders will attempt to discover the root cause of the conflict and resolve the issues as quickly as possible so as to get back to more productive activities. They recognize that people are different, with unique personalities and that they will differ from others in their values, needs and goals. Leaders who operate with this assumption realize that positive outcomes can arise when conflict is managed appropriately, but still tend to see the actual conflict as a negative force in the organization.

  3. Conflict is neither good nor bad; it all depends on the situation and how it is managed. Leaders who think about conflict in this way believe that conflict can be functional or dysfunctional depending upon what caused the conflict and how it is managed. On one hand, these leaders agree with William Wrigley, Jr. who said, "When two people always agree, one of them is unnecessary." On the other hand they know that there will be times when conflict may have a negative impact on the organization and must be confronted and appropriately dealt with. These leaders value conflict and realize the benefit that it can bring by challenging old assumptions.

Sources of and Responses to Conflict

Conflict can occur at any level of an organization. It can occur between individuals, teams and business units. Differences naturally occur when good people, teams and business units try to adhere to their values, satisfy their needs, act according to their beliefs and pursue their goals. Problems arise when values, needs, beliefs or goals are not identical. Often, these factors are not that different but problems in communications make them appear as if they are. In organizations, most conflicts arise from the requirement for interdependence. Generally, people within the same organization have compatible values, needs, beliefs and goals but the requirement for people, teams and business units to work together to accomplish goals together leads to conflict. This is usually due to disagreement on what direction to proceed or the means to achieve goals. Despite the inevitability of conflict, people will choose to respond in one of three ways:

  1. Compromise amicably to turn disagreements into agreements.

  2. Continue to privately disagree but fully support the final agreed-upon decision.

  3. Continue to disruptively disagree.