“If you’re the boss and your people fight you openly when they think that you are wrong – that’s healthy.” – Robert Townsend
Ask most leaders about conflict in the organizations they lead and most will say some version of “We don’t have conflict – we communicate too well for that,” or something along those lines. They say it in such a way that it sounds like something they’re bragging about. The reality is if they were such good communicators they’d actually have more conflict, and that if an organization can honestly say there isn’t any conflict within then I’d say that organization is in serious trouble.
I will admit that some of the problem is semantics. Many people confuse conflict with combat. When you ask about conflict, they can’t remember any situations where anybody got punched or threw things or stormed out of a room, so they think they don’t have conflict. Those extremes happen but they’re rare, even in most unhealthy organizations.
When I say conflict, what I’m talking about is not mean-spirited or directed at someone’s personal characteristics. I’m talking about productive conflict, the kind that ensures there are no elephants in the room, the kind that ensures ideas are vetted and explored, the kind that results in greater trust than existed before it.
Even that good kind of conflict, though, is far too rare in most organizations. One of the main reasons is the fact that for most people, conflict is uncomfortable. Even in organizations or among team members with very high levels of trust, conflict can be unpleasant. I can attest to that from personal experience. I work with some individuals I trust beyond any doubt whatsoever. And yet, when we have conflict, it’s uncomfortable, sometimes extremely so.
The best leaders – the ones with healthy organizations and effective leadership teams – don’t avoid conflict and that uncomfortable feeling; they embrace it. They understand that like anything else worth having in life, organizational health cannot be realized without sacrifice. In this case, the sacrifice involves leaving your comfort zone.
So why does it matter? Because for your organization to function at its peak and attain everything it’s capable of, people have to disagree. Sometimes vehemently so. They have to disagree so that decisions aren’t made in haste. When team members can have constructive conflict they don’t get defensive when their ideas are challenged and don’t take it as a personal insult when another idea is chosen over theirs. They don’t assume everyone is “out to get them” just because people are questioning what they have to say. To quote Patrick Lencioni, “When there is trust, conflict becomes nothing but the pursuit of truth, an attempt to find the best possible answer.”
And, in the end, isn’t that the whole idea?