Why Conflict is Good for Business

LinkedIn – This is the 9th post in a series on building high-trust organizations.

As surprising as it might sound, conflict can be a good thing for your business. In high-trust organizations, it can even be great.

In most workplaces, people squabble over creative differences, project ownership, and budgets – they butt heads over all manner of political issues. Generally speaking, the more people there are, the more issues they have to fuss over. It’s just a fact of life – and work. But the difference between conflict in a dysfunctional company and in a high-trust organization is how people deal with it.

Healthy organizations are often the noisiest. To outsiders, they may appear conflict-ridden and unable to find a perfect harmony. But inside, leaders are harnessing the different viewpoints and ideas to power progress, to move the agenda forward. As in most functional human relationships, people in high-performing organizations work through frictions in a spirit of mutual respect. The result is often a creative, outside-the-box solution – or, at least, a compromise. Those benefits may not be as easy to come by in organizations that appear calm on the surface.

Leaders of high-trust organizations know that building trust is among the great benefits of tackling disagreements head-on, rather than letting them fester. Being proactive, even if uncomfortable, can root out fuzzy thinking, faulty practices and purely political maneuvering; and it can get people used to working through differences and trusting one another, instead of working at cross-purposes.

That’s why handling conflict well can boost trust. The key is to convert discord into opportunities for learning and growth. Here are some ways to think about doing this.

1) May the best idea win: Any other criterion for making decisions may well be a symptom of low trust. If the best idea loses, it can mean that disagreement is frowned upon, so certain ideas never get aired in the first place. It could also mean input from junior employees is ignored. When senior management rarely accepts ideas that aren’t their own, they create a climate in which people are hesitant to speak up, falling in line by rank instead. Such companies tend to have a tranquil veneer, but it’s the type of superficial peace you might find in a maximum-security prison.

In high-trust cultures, on the other hand, leaders don’t just look for employees who learn to toe the line. Quite the contrary: when great ideas come from less senior team members, high-trust leaders aim the spotlight at the “unexpected” contributor. That kind of celebration encourages bold thinking and participation from all quarters. Where the best ideas win, more good ideas seem to surface.

2) Think like a mediator, not a judge: An important step toward resolving differences is making sure team members are heard. That means being a good, neutral listener. Before offering feedback, be sure you’ve heard and considered all sides.

If either party in a conflict walks away steaming with resentment, the whole organization suffers. So while you want to exercise the wisdom of a judge, aim also to reflect the attitude of a mediator: instead of assigning fault, or picking a side, look for common ground and create win-win solutions, if you can. It may be that by seeking more viewpoints, and allowing perspectives to clash, the group may settle on a solution built on diverse perspectives.

3) Don’t let tensions boil over: As previously noted, strife has a way of building up and – if ignored – blowing up. Processing conflict along the way is like allowing the safety valve on a pressure cooker to do its job.

That said, it’s inevitable that some conversations will end in anger or hurt feelings. When people are invested in their ideas, they put themselves and their emotions on the line. That’s a good thing. But it’s important as leader to be mindful of the long term. When tensions begin to simmer, take a break. Pick things up later. But be specific, so no one is left hanging: “Let’s revisit this again tomorrow after we’ve both had time to think about it some more.”

Conflict happens — in businesses, in charitable organizations, in political parties and in families. It means people care about outcomes, and conflict is far better than apathy. So, fostering a culture in which conflict is processed openly is as vital as any habit in the creation of a high-trust culture.

By Joel Peterson