Wednesday, 19 March 2014

When Conflict Helps

“Society” teaches that conflict should be avoided and that it’s a sign of weakness if things become “heated”.  In most cases, this is true.  In some, however, conflicts need to surface and be dealt with for the greater good of the team.  

There are very few individuals who can avoid conflicts with colleagues and still get things done.  In some cultures (and I don’t just mean national cultures), it’s considered bad form to disagree or argue openly with a colleague, let alone your boss.  As a result, people either keep quiet and let their resentment simmer or may even pack up and leave.  When your talent heads for the exit, something’s wrong.

Many large organisations have lists of “desirable” qualities against which appraisees are rated as part of the “appraisal process” in order to discover “areas for improvement”.  One of these is often “Interpersonal Effectiveness” and/or “Sensitivity” and yet some of the most senior managers are often known for their lack of sensitivity towards others.  This problem bedevilled the now CEO of a global institution (and may, for all I know, still do so). 

Teams go through a process of  “Forming”, “Storming”, “Norming” and “Performing” when they come together for the first time, or when a new colleague joins.  However much the interview “vetting process” tries to ensure that only “suitable” candidates will be selected, it’s likely that conflicts WILL surface as different individuals with different views and ways of doing things come together.  The trend to hire individuals from all nations, cultures and backgrounds means that the chances of someone being in direct conflict with another are higher than before.

Equally, you don’t want to be hiring “clones” - people “just like you”.  You need people who will challenge others and “the system”, who will ask those “awkward questions”.  These are likely to be the people who see where the problems are and know what needs to be done.  Shutting them up (or out) merely risks the organisation sinking faster into complacency and lack of competitiveness.  

Instead of trying to sweep this under the proverbial carpet, organisations need mechanisms to ensure that:
  • People understand that conflict is natural;
  • Conflict is inevitable;
  • Conflict can be good;
  • Conflict can be handled;
  • Team members are aware of potential conflict situations;
  • Team members can get conflict into the open without fear of reprisal.

Often the individuals concerned know there’s a problem and WANT to find some way to resolve it (I’ve met very few who want to continue sabotaging their colleagues’ or team’s efforts).  They need to understand what it is about their way (and the other person’s way) of seeing/doing things that has caused the problem.  

An “honest broker” is the best way both to orientate team members when they first join, and to mediate when things become tricky.  If the same individual continually appears on the “conflict radar”, then something’s clearly wrong (not necessarily with the individual, either!) and needs to be adjusted.  The common solution, though, is to ask the person concerned to leave, rather than to work out why there’s a problem, face some (possibly) unpleasant truths and search for solutions.  It may be that the individual concerned has a valid point and that they may save the team/organisation from disaster if listened to.  Too often, though, they are ejected due to the natural instinct of humans to band together into “tribes”.

My view?  LISTEN to what people have to say and get their disagreements out into the open.  They may actually see something that you don’t.  If a mechanic kept telling you that your car needed repairing before it broke down, you’d probably listen.  When the same thing happens with your most valuable resource, maybe it’s time to listen to them as well.  

I have spent more than half my life delivering change in different world markets from the most developed to “emerging” economies. With more than 20 years in the world financial services industry running different service, operations and lending businesses, I started my own Performance Management Consultancy to offer solutions for improving performance, productivity and risk management.  I work with individuals, small businesses, charities, quoted companies and academic institutions across the world. An international speaker, trainer, author and fund-raiser, I can be contacted by email . My website provides a full picture of my portfolio of services.  For strategic questions that you should be asking yourself, follow me at @wkm610.

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