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iOn the Contrary-i Productive Conflict Has Value

February 1, 1999
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Everything I learned about conflict management I learned from my mother, who believed fighting was low class. According to her, we were "sophisticated people" and sophisticated people didn’t do that sort of thing. Conflict simply was not "couth," to use one of her favorite words.

The problem: There were six of us—five of whom were female—crammed inside a small suburban tract home with just one bathroom. When date night came around every Friday, that one bathroom was like the only rest stop between St. Louis and Santa Fe. The line outside the door started forming right after school. By 7 p.m., the potential for shouting, shoving and hair-pulling rivaled the crowd at a Brazilian soccer match. Still, we contained ourselves. We were nice people, remember?

Instead of fighting with my little sister (who always got away with more bathroom time), I’d hold my anger. Then, as she was heading to the front door to let in a new boyfriend, I’d casually remark how unfortunate it was that the pimple on her chin had become so prominent. Passive-aggressive? You bet—but satisfying, too. Of course, it did nothing to resolve conflict over bathroom time. But then again, we never had conflicts.

Playing nice can be more harmful than the fight.
In recent years, I’ve had the opportunity to watch countless corporate employees in action and I’ve come to the conclusion that everybody thinks conflict simply is not "couth." Fighting, we’re taught to believe, is the province of callous, insensitive bullies. People like Howard Stern and Dr. Laura fight. Polite, orderly people like the rest of us try to get along with others, right?

Well... yes, but this kind of thinking can actually cause more problems than it solves because conflict is a natural part of the human experience, especially in organizations. We may not be fighting over bathroom time, but we’re fighting about a whole lot of other things—which is good, but I’ll get to that in a minute.

According to Alice Pescuric, vice president and practice leader at Development Dimensions International near Pittsburgh, research shows that managers now list "managing conflict" as number seven on their top-10 list of priorities. "It used to be much further down the list," she says.

Corporate conflict is escalating for several reasons, including greater stress, fewer resources and massive confusion over what the term "casual dress" really means. However, nothing has contributed more to conflict than the advent of collaborative, team-based work environments. We seem to agree that a group of people working together achieves better results than any one person working alone. Unfortunately—thanks to moms everywhere—many of us join teams thinking harmony is the goal. We’re afraid if we disagree, we’ll be perceived as "rocking the boat" or not being a "team player."

Conflict isn’t necessarily destructive.
While my mom may have taught us to bite our tongues, management has certainly reinforced the idea. "Employees are smart enough to know what managers want, and in most cases, what they want is conformity and obedience," explains David Stiebel, author of When Talking Makes Things Worse, (Whitehall & Nolton, 1997). When employees think conflict is verboten, they won’t voice their objections, concerns or dissenting opinions, nor will they risk suggesting new ways of doing things. Clearly, in this kind of environment, people can agree their way into horrendous decisions.

In fact, I’m convinced that call-waiting was designed by a team of people who were afraid to disagree with one another. How else can you explain the introduction of something so patently annoying? The design of call-waiting probably went something like this:

Team member A says: "I know, let’s use a really loud beep to let people know that someone else is trying to call them!"

"Great idea!" says team member B. "And when the beep goes off, let’s make sure that the voice of whoever is talking is obscured by a long silent interruption, okay?"

"Okay!" the rest of the team shouts in unison, as they skip around the table congratulating themselves on their ability to reach agreement so quickly.

Now, is this really the kind of team we want? The intent of collaboration shouldn’t be agreement, but the ability for everyone to express their opinions no matter how disagreeable those opinions may seem. When people feel free to disagree, more ideas are put on the table, which can lead to more discoveries and to quantum leaps in improvement and innovation. Put simply, conflict is a potent source of creativity, especially in troubled times. After all, if everything is going smoothly, there’s no need to innovate or move to a higher level.

HR should encourage productive conflict.
HR has a key role to play in making this kind of constructive conflict become a reality. According to Stiebel, HR managers can model the value of conflict by demonstrating their willingness to learn from others, publicly praising employees who are willing to suggest new and different approaches, celebrating the success of counterintuitive decisions by telling stories about such successes, and modeling the kind of behavior that shows a comfort level with conflict.

While it may take a while to get used to the idea that conflict can be a good thing, once you get there, you’ll be better able to resist the temptation to make passive-aggressive comments about pimples. Unless of course, it’s Friday night and you’ve been waiting two hours to get into the bathroom. At that point, anything’s fair game.

Workforce, February 1999, Vol. 78, No. 2, pp. 25-27.

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