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Organizational Conflict as a Collaborative Tool

Can conflict be a collaborative tool?
Can conflict be a collaborative tool?

Believe it or not conflict is a natural part of human existence. Whenever groups of people interact to achieve a goal, like in the workplace, at church, in a Boy or Girl Scout troop, there will be conflict. Inherently conflict is neutral, neither good nor bad. How we react to areas of conflict can lead to a good or bad (functional or dysfunctional) conflict situation. Conflict is normally seen as bad because there is rarely a conscious attempt to manage it or understand how to work with the situations that can cause dysfunctional conflict.

Take this example. Two people, one in sales and another in operations have conflicting goals. When one follows their department procedures, the other is out of compliance. Both blame the other for their department’s issues with the EPA. The conflict becomes obvious in meetings. They form coalitions who also visibly feud within the organization. Both are in hot water with their superiors for their behaviors and the compliance issues. How does this happen?

It happens because people often don't realize that conflict can be used as a collaborative tool. First of all you must understand that conflict never goes away on its own. Avoiding conflict may be appropriate for a particular situation but in most cases if you don’t effectively address conflict, the conflict escalates and as it escalates it grows in strength and frequency. Allowing it to escalate can make you look ineffective. Secondly, conflict surfaces many issues both in your own conscious and in the world of the other person or group. This is an advantage that you can use to build a collaborative bridge -- knowing what makes the other person tick. The biggest advantage of conflict is that once the conflict is converted from dysfunctional to functional, a stronger bond grows between you and the other person or group. It also provides a new understanding of the pressures and requirements facing that person or group.

Most people don’t like conflict or react to conflict in an aggressive and dysfunctional manner. Developing an environment that uses conflicts functionally and prepares members in functionally addressing conflicts takes time and effort. That is often the reason for ignoring a situation that needs to be addressed until the situation forces you to take action. Because you are not prepared to handle the situation and you don't have time, you react in a negative manner expecting the problem to resolve itself.

Dysfunctional conflicts tend to grow in competitive and high-pressure environments and in situations where resources are scarce or in distributive (win-lose) contexts (like the scenario described earlier). The more collaborative the environment and the more integrative the resources (win-win), the more functional the conflict becomes. In these situations conflict is often mitigated and used to understand the wants and needs of one another.

A good illustration of how conflict occurs, how it can be managed and what outcomes occur is the group dynamics theory developed by Bruce Tuckman. This theory shows the progression of group formation from forming to storming to norming and eventually to performing. Each group goes through these stages. Effective teams are advanced groups and don’t begin to be effective until the group “performing” stage is reached.

At first the group gets along well in the forming stage as they get to know one another. However, in the next stage personality differences, the pressure of the task at hand, and other factors lead the group to “storm” or enter into dysfunctional conflict. The result here is that the group cannot move forward until they are able to manage conflict and disagreements.

Even in the next stage managing conflict is important. In this stage the group develops rules and procedures to mitigate most conflicts and disagreements but “norming” can lead to “group think” where group members just agree to conform. This is just as dangerous as being stuck in the storming stage. Once the group is able to both deal with conflicts and differences and is able to use conflict to make sure people are not just agreeing to conform, the group is beginning to become an effective team.

Here are some tips in understanding conflict in order to use conflict as a collaborative tool:

  • Be aware of and address conversations that can lead down the wrong path
  • Attempt to convert dysfunctional conflicts to disagreements (one can just agree to disagree at that point)
  • Focus on “areas of agreements” and “mutual objectives”
  • Be prepared to consider the other person's point of view
  • Explain the consequences to you and to the organization of issues that negatively affecting you and the organization
  • Seek win-win solutions before entering into negotiations
  • Focus on the positive benefits of any conflict
  • Understanding conflict has to do with understanding that we all value things differently
    • Some of those values are healthy and some unhealthy.
  • Relationships have to do with understanding each other’s value system and appreciating them even if you don’t necessarily agree (this is hard when you discuss politics or religion)
  • Healthy conflict reveals to us that our world-view is often built on faulty assumptions
  • Unhealthy conflict reveals to us our own personal issues that we need to resolve
    • Some of those include false beliefs like we always have to be right
    • I am the smartest person in the room, etc. etc.
  • In order to come to a consensus you first have to disagree.

In the earlier scenario, sales and operations began to realize that both of their careers depended on converting their dysfunctional conflict into cooperation (mutual objectives). Both parties agreed to invite each other to their “world” to show how the actions of one another created conflict (see the other person’s world-view). Once both parties visited the world of the other, they began to see the pressures, realities, and frustrations that each other had as a result of the faulty policies of their departments that caused problems with the other parties’ area (conflict reveals our own issues as well as the pressures and frustrations of another person’s world). As a result, they formed a cooperative venture to address these mutual problems (seek win-win solutions). There were still problems but those problems became either disagreements or something they both worked on to mutually solve (convert dysfunctional conflict to disagreements).

Understanding and managing conflict effectively can provide you with skills that few people have. Listening carefully to the impassioned arguments of others will allow you to learn a lot about them, the pressures they are under and their hidden objectives. It is easy to fall into the “battle zone” and prepare to fight for your perspective. This is rarely helpful. Instead provide an overview of your argument and perspective, listen to theirs and be prepared to find a win-win solution.

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