How often have you heard or said “healthy conflict is a good thing.”? Conventional wisdom is that “healthy conflict is crucial” to organizational advancement. Why? Because conflict can spur action. Conflict can help push teams to a higher level of performance. As someone who works with organizations to increase conflict resolution skills,(now this might be controversial), I don’t buy it. In fact, I think the vast majority of the time deliberately extolling the creation of “healthy conflict” by senior leaders is disingenuous.
Hear me out.
When leaders talk about conflict, what they generally mean is an idealized intellectual forum with a synergistic (good lord, I really hate that word) unleashing of ideas followed by a cooperative vetting which results in the “best solution”. It assumes that everyone has equal power, equal skill and equal desire to engage. It is very definitely rooted in a very American belief the competition brings out the best in people and that the best idea will “win.” Again, I don’t buy it.
What usually happens is something that more closely resembles a scene from Russell Crowe’s 2000 film “Gladiator”. You might remember just prior to when this scene begins, there is a man waiting to enter the area who is so scared he wets himself. Most of us have a level of discomfort with “conflict” that is closer to that of the poor guy who loses bladder control than the more confident warriors.
There is a decidedly different level of comfort and experience in the Coliseum. The workplace is no different. People that are high up in the organization, those with decision-making power and greater experience with intellectually duking it out have a decided advantage. These folks are the ones who often say that “conflict is a good thing because it spurs growth and helps weed out the less viable ideas.” The vast majority of employees feel otherwise.
Because employees know that there are power structures. They know who the boss is and don’t want to rock the boat. They know that ultimately it is not their call to make and no matter how much they like an idea, they can’t compel senior leaders to adopt the change. As a result they feel a little bit helpless. Like the poor guy who is thrown into the arena.
Staff might also feel as though power plays are going on. Likely, they don’t feel heard or feel that their voice doesn’t really count. They are experiencing the emotional side of conflict and change. Did you get that? They are focused on the emotional side of conflict. It is as much about the feelings as it is the substantive part of the conversation. Those not in a decision making role or those who feel that there are power imbalances present, do not see conflict as a positive force to advance the team or the organization. Conflict is emotionally disruptive.
So when phrases like “healthy conflict” are used it conjures emotional memories steeped in tension, stress, helplessness, frustration, fear, and hopelessness.
Emotional hangovers are a tough thing to work your way through. Here is a suggestion…
Reframe the conversation to take “conflict” out. Use terms like “sharing out,” “vetting”, or “trouble shooting”. Anything except for conflict. Language matters. Language sets the tone. Language is laden with meaning. Be sure to articulate that the goal is to get to a decision so that the decision can be implemented. (You may not be surprised how often things get stuck in perpetual discussion).
As leaders, you can set a tone of candor and collaboration. Give it a try. See what happens about about a dozen or so meetings. If the team remains emotionally stuck, reach out. I can help.