Workplace conflict is like fat in your diet. You need to increase the good and eliminate the bad. How can leaders tell the difference between conflict that advances initiatives and achieves a purpose, and that which erodes the health and productivity of the company?
Destructive vs. Constructive Conflict
Constructive conflict has a purpose; it advances a cause, and while it is uncomfortable, it is working for you. Scania, the Swedish auto manufacturer, for instance, recently won a prestigious award from Porsche for exhaust treatment research. Two departments – specializing in engine and chassis development, respectively – had to work together, and Lars Dahlén, the head of chassis development, credits friction for their achievement: “Innovation comes about largely through conflicting requirements,” he says. “It’s conflict that produces new solutions.”
Each department wanted to produce an exceptional final product, and to do that they had to focus on facts: Is this going to work? What if we did this instead? Is that component viable? What would work better?
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Leaders run into trouble when emotion is driving the conflict. Then it’s not a situation in which the parties want to create a better product, make a better decision, or generate a better idea. It’s one in which they have a personal agenda that puts them at odds with others’ opinions. Instead of “How can we build a better widget for our exhaust system?” the question becomes “Why can’t they see that my design is best? What’s wrong with them?” This type of conflict stalls progress; it becomes destructive, personal, and costly.
Resolving Negative Conflict
- Know your team well enough to recognize when conflict is emotionally driven. Say, for instance, that you have a manager who has spent two years developing a new product. He’s invested in seeing it go to market. When the team is making a decision about whether or not to launch the product, it is difficult for this individual to look at the issue objectively, and to recognize the costs to the organization. The CEO needs to be smart enough and intuitive enough to see when someone is personally invested and when he or she goes from making a passionate argument to a personal one.
- Intervene. Allowing this conflict to simmer is not constructive. Stop and remind your team members that they need to step out of their personal roles and look at the issue, whatever it is, from a corporate perspective. Is this a positive thing or a negative thing for the company? Bring the discussion back to the facts and take the emotion out of it.
- If necessary, separate the conflicting parties. If there are different “factions” springing up, it becomes like kids in a fight. You’ve got to separate them and break it up. Give them time to cool down, because at this point, they’re not even listening to each other anymore. After you have given them a period in which to calm down, regroup and talk about the issue from a disinterested perspective. Get back to the facts.
Why not just assert your authority as leader and say, “That’s it. I’m making the decision. We’re not going to do this anymore?” That only gets you through so many times. You have to be able to work with your people and move them along so that they understand that emotionally and personally motivated actions are inappropriate and unhelpful. Everyone must work for the betterment of the team and not themselves, or you risk undermining the organization.