By Guy Harris
Conflict definitely sounds bad, and it generally feels bad. There are very few people who look forward to a conflict discussion. Frankly, more people avoid or look to escape conflict discussions than are willing to actively participate in them. Conflict certainly has a negative emotional aspect for most people.
Is conflict always bad, though?
Before we answer that question, let’s look at a definition of conflict to make sure we are on the same page. I will use a definition proposed by Craig Runde and Tim Flanagan in their book Becoming a Conflict Competent Leader:
“conflict is any situation in which interdependent people have apparently incompatible interest goals, principles, or feelings.”
Two words in that definition are really important: interdependent and apparently.
The conflicts most leaders face involve interdependent rather than independent individuals. As leaders, we work in an organizational or business setting where the words, actions, decisions, results, and work outputs of one person affects the results and work outputs of other people. The people involved in the conflict depend on each other to get work done and to create results. They are not independent of each other. They are interdependent. As a result, we have to figure out a way to make this work. In fact, our interdependence might be the source of the conflict: we both care – a lot – about the issues facing our business or organization. Shared care and concern are good, not bad.
The second word is apparently. Apparently is important because it touches on the idea that much of the time, the differences we perceive between us are apparent incompatibilities rather than actual incompatibilities. Apparent incompatibilities are created by the biases and assumptions we bring to the conversation. These biases and assumptions affect how well we understand other people’s intentions, desires, needs, and interests.
Because these differences are often apparent rather than real, if we stop long enough to understand the assumptions and biases, and take a moment to get past them, we might find that we have shared interests, goals, principles, and feelings that we can build on to resolve the conflict. Again, shared interests, goals, principles, and feelings are good not bad.
To close the discussion of whether conflict is inherently good or bad, I am going to reference a second book: The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni.
Lencioni says that the second of the five dysfunctions that lead to team failure is the fear of conflict. He points out that fear of conflict is actually a dysfunction. If we extend the idea that fear of conflict is a dysfunction, it implies that successfully addressing conflict is a requirement for success, and I agree with him. As Lencioni makes his case that fear of conflict is a dysfunction, he adds that the type of conflict he is referencing is the type of conflict we experience when we are solving real problems that face the organization. This type of problem-solving conflict is normal, and solving problems is good, not bad.
Can conflicts be bad? Definitely.
And there are things leaders can do to move conflicts in either a good or a bad direction. In my next post, I will elaborate on the different signs to indicate if a conflict is good (constructive) or bad (destructive).
For today, I will stop with a reminder that while conflict almost always feels bad, it is not always actually bad.