February 20, 2020
It is time to stop treating conflict as a problem. Instead of adding modifiers to dress up that which we perceive as a problem (“constructive conflict” or “productive conflict”), we can instead embrace a paradigm shift: conflict is not actually the problem we think it is. Instead, it is a product of healthy, effective collaboration.
Conflict exists as a normal state of tension in any organization. For example, you have a great idea to solve a persistent problem in healthcare, plug a hole in a service industry, or put a person on the moon. You define a strategy and business model around how you are going to make this idea happen, and you are on the road to changing the world. Then you gather a bunch of like-minded people with a variety of skills to join you on this mission, in the form of investors, employees, and stakeholders. You now have an organization. Those in the organization all agree, at some level, with your vision of a changed world.
Here’s the rub: all of these people, by design, occupy highly differentiated roles with necessarily different perspectives, experiences, and approaches to changing the world. This sets the stage for conflict.
Coming from the same big picture commitment to the organizing mission and strategy, we now have a team full of different point of views, ideas, and interpretations of what needs to happen to make the mission a reality every day. As the organization moves forward to solve incremental problems on the way to changing the world, of course there will be conflict. It is no anomaly. In fact, it would be an anomaly if there wasn’t conflict.
Our jobs, by their nature, are designed to solve problems through conflict.
Consider this analogy: you and I are going to lunch. If we make lunch plans, we are actually going to move quickly and successfully through a few rounds of conflict.
- What time shall we leave?
- What are we craving?
- Who will pay?
And the list goes on. The presence of conflict is not a problem. It is the orientation and process required to go out to lunch. If we respond to our different perspectives, and the conflict they create, as problematic or unpredictable, then we’re diverted away from having our best selves available to experience a great meal together.
There is not much foundational difference when it comes to the very challenging and complex endeavors we call jobs. Many, if not all our responsibilities, require collaboration across differences in points of view and approaches to work that will generate conflict. This conflict is the necessary starting point for achieving the mission. It’s our persistent job responsibility to engage with one another while remaining aware of our unique and necessary differences. In this awareness, we can work together to perform at a higher level.
Instead of labeling our differences as seeds of conflict (and, in labeling them, avoiding potentially positive encounters completely), we must develop our ability to embrace these differences. This ability starts with the following mindset shift:
- We are together in an organization to drive its mission forward through a defined strategy, thereby impacting customers and changing the world.
- In order to execute on strategy, we must go about solving problems, puzzles, issues, and roadblocks as part of our collective job description. How else can we change the world?
- Solving problems, puzzles, issues, and roadblocks requires engaging in conflict, turning toward one another to learn from our differences and innovate together.
- Therefore, conflict is a good and necessary part of executing on our organization’s strategy to make our vision become reality.
Stop labeling opportunities to collaborate within and across your differences as “conflict”. Instead, teach yourself and others how to expect and embrace conflict as a path to engaging in your organization’s mission.
A Call to Action
Try these actions to embrace the conflict mindset shift:
- Focus on your job description – Remember that it is your job to engage with the conflict generated in your work. Instead of turning toward “win/lose” scenarios, focus on how your team’s role is focused on driving success through conflict.
- Remove value statements – De-emphasize and remove value statements, such as “right” and “wrong”. Instead, focus on what and how we can learn from one another’s points of view.
- Expect conflict (and worry when it is absent) – Stop interpreting a lack of conflict as safety and success. Instead, identify it as a gap in honest feedback and collaboration. Conflict is one of the most valuable tools we have to access innovation. Consider how Google’s highest performing teams take risks and innovate.
To recap, conflict is the presence of necessary different points of view. As we encounter these differences, we have a choice. We can choose to make the fact that we have conflict, generated via necessary differences, the problem, taking our focus off our mission. Alternately, we can choose to talk through these differences, learn from each other, and remain focused on the greater mission that brings us together.
You decide which mindset will serve your commitment to change the world.