The Positive Side of Conflict

We usually treat conflict like a pest - a plague on organizational efficiency and effectiveness.  It disrupts operations, sours cultures and inhibits collaboration.  But is it always and entirely bad?  We suggest that there are two overlooked sides to conflict that, if managed correctly, can be harnessed for good and give your organization a boost:

1. Conflict gives rise to conversations about "undiscussables".  These are things that silently constrain healthy interaction among employees and that need to be resolved, but are considered minor enough that they do not outweigh the risk associated with trying to resolve them.  For example, employees might perceive that leadership does not respect their contributions.  This would normally be a topic of conversation that employees choose to avoid when in the company of the organization's leaders because, while bothersome, it is not so severe a problem that it warrants "rocking the boat."  When conflict arises, though, there are usually strong emotions involved and the parties will bring up issues such as this, which, in more sober moments, would be considered "undiscussable."  It then becomes the responsibility of the leader to take the opportunity to learn from the conflict driven discussion and make changes that will lead to increased productivity within their team.

2. Differences in opinion (conflict) can also fuel productive creativity.  Substantial research by Dr. Charlan Nemeth has demonstrated that, when people disagree, they put significantly more effort into supporting their positions.  In other words, we think through, develop and vet our own ideas much more thoroughly when we have to defend them against countervailing pressures.  Conflict among individuals can present such countervailing pressure and therefore increase analysis of ideas and lead to more positive discussion and thus increased creativity.  It goes without saying that such increased creativity can, when managed effectively also lead to organizational improvement and innovation.

Unfortunately, conflict is usually a destructive force in organizations.  People disagree, emotions elevate and the social bonds that keep organizations operating effectively begin to dissolve.  When unmanaged, this is what most conflict creates, but we have proposed that conflict has a positive side.  It presents us with an opportunity.  The key, of course, is for the conflict to be handled well.  When people (1) understand the anatomy of conflict - how and why it fuels emotional fires and spirals out of control - and (2) possess the skills to redirect conflict into healthy conversations, conflict becomes a uniquely positive force on organizations.