Making conflict productive

Conflict is unavoidable. It is a natural and healthy process. Or it should be, at least.

We are all individuals, and we all have our own unique experiences, skills and knowledge. We all have different ideas and opinions; sometimes these flow together and sometimes they clash.

Companies who want to be progressive, seek to extract those ideas and opinions and out-of-the-box thinking as they know it is the fuel that powers innovation and transformation. Yet in the effort to embrace and entice this creativity, there can naturally be conflicting ideas, opinions and ways of doing things. Knowing how to manage and handle this conflict in a positive and transformative way is essential for leaders wanting to keep staff engaged, expressive and to feel OK with conflict. 

In any organisation you are going to have people with competing priorities. Bringing those people together and facilitating a conversation can be challenging for the person running the meeting. But done in a positive and progressive manner, where everyone feels heard, you can get everyone’s thoughts and ideas on the table, and push the conversation through the conflict and into a new stage of compromise, agreement and shared commitment to move forward.

As always, one of the best ways to keep everyone focussed on resolution is to keep sight of the purpose and the bigger picture, of what you want your outcome to be. It’s also important for leaders to encourage a workplace where ideas and opinions are valued. The best ideas don’t usually come from just one person, instead that one person sparks the idea and then it gathers more ideas and options and grows and evolves. New ideas need the acceptance and cooperation of everyone in the team to shape it, let it flourish and bring it to life. 

Turning conflict into an opportunity for growth: 

When people within an organisation conflict with or challenge policies and decisions, the conversation should be encouraged as long as it is in a productive and respectful way. There should be a forum for them to occur with leadership in order to foster a culture where conflict and differences in opinion can be voiced and paid attention to. In cultures where employees feel too scared or feel that it is futile to discuss their opposition to the decisions and ideas of management, they become disengaged, feel unheard and can eventually become unproductive and even leave. On the other hand, when management actively seeks out the ideas and feedback of their people, even if it is not always acted on, people feel engaged, invested and very often, the sparks of innovation and creativity begin to fly in all levels of the business, and everyone in the business has a platform to be heard. 

In her TED Talk Jess Kutch, gives a great example of productive conflict. In 2016, one employee of an outdoor retailer in the US created a campaign on following an unproductive talk with her manager whereby she was denied a small and reasonable pay rise despite her great work and ongoing commitment to the business. The decision was apparently out of her manager’s hands and was a decision only the corporate head office could make who were not in the habit of having an open dialogue with stores in regards to pay. Unsatisfied with the conversation, this employee began an online conversation asking the corporate office to consider issuing a pay rise to store employees.

Within days, the chat forum was alight with stories of store employees across the country wanting to get a raise to keep them in their jobs and away from competitors who were offering higher rates of pay. As it turns out, the sentiment of the conversation was that staff believed in the mission of the company, they liked being part of the company and didn’t want to leave but felt the pressure to secure better pay in order to meet their rising cost of living.

After weeks of this groundswell of discussion, leadership decided to raise wages by 5-15% which resulted in a much more engaged and satisfied workforce and curbed the potential high turnover rates they would have otherwise faced. In this instance Kutcch defines productive conflict as “pushing up against the things that aren’t working for us when there exists no other path forward”. Leaders should absolutely have their ears close to the ground to detect and extract any ‘groundswell’ conflict within their staff against their decisions and way of doing things. They need to actively seek out feedback from staff.

Those businesses who make an effort to have a flat structure do well at making people feel their voices matter, their opinions and feedback will be listened to. It’s a lot healthier than staff feeling too afraid to speak up. 

Conflict that arises at the organisational level can of course be confronting for leaders to face and to manage – bringing up their own challenges. Even so, it is important for leaders to realise that this kind of productive feedback, means that staff are engaged, they care, they want to create a better company. In fact if leaders never hear of their staff butting up against decisions and policies and procedures, that in itself should be a red flag – a signal that staff are not engaged, too afraid to speak up… 

Conflict arises from differences in opinions. Leaders need to upskill themselves with the tools for effective conflict management as well as setting up procedures and platforms to allow for healthy discussion regarding decisions to ensure leadership is connected to employees and doing what they can to keep staff happy, engaged and productive. 

How does your business deal with conflict? Could you and your leadership team benefit from one of my tailored workshops? I’d love to share my experience and fool-proof leadership techniques with you. 

Don’t hesitate. Get in touch today.

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