Oxford dictionary defines conflict as ‘a serious disagreement or argument, typically a protracted one’.
You would agree if I say conflicts keep us away from achieving the desired result quickly. Therefore, traditionally organisations have seen conflict as harmful because they cause unnecessary delays and hence something that must be avoided. If we know that a conflict resolution is waiting for us, automatically our shoulders drop, we breathe out loudly, and feel exhausted right in the morning.
Have you ever thought why? Well, because conflict means getting behind closed doors in to a series of meetings – An activity that takes up our time and probably then we end up sitting in office for longer hours to meet client deadlines. A conflict resolution meeting also means ‘selling’ our ideas/ views to others, which is exhausting as we all love to buy but hate to be sold to. And yes, it also means ‘listening’ to what others have to say. And as the famous Stephen Covey quote says “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply”, which really does not work in your favour while resolving conflicts, does it?
As if this was not enough, these meetings have all sorts of people – most of them you may like or can tolerate but there will always be a few that you can’t even stand. At times there are disagreements for the heck of it, of course gift-wrapped in almost intelligent arguments and past failures. Is there any wonder that we don’t like conflicts?
However, the new school thinking is that ‘group think’ and lack of diversity almost guarantee a sub-optimal solution. I would say this sort of promotes conflicts. Should we be promoting conflicts? Truthfully, up until I got the opportunity to manage a youth leadership programme I thought otherwise. But managing the youth leadership progamme, from its inception to over three years, with multiple stakeholders; it completely changed my perspective on conflicts. I now believe that some conflicts are really good and that we need to promote them.
But I do want to say, not all conflicts are good. So, let’s look at the two broad varieties of conflicts and then take it up from there:
1. Functional conflict – conflict that supports the goals of the group and improves its performance.
Whenever the conflict is about why, what or how to do something, generally it is a functional conflict. It brings in clarity and allows for deciding the best way forward. It might bring out contradictions of goals of different groups/ departments and provide excellent opportunities to re-align strategies. It could range from more blatant issues like focus on customer satisfaction improvement from 40% to 90% and in a separate cost cutting initiative slash customer service budget by 50%, to the subtler ones like employees must follow the standard protocol for customer interaction for consistency even while opening an outlet in a new market. There are other important functional conflicts too – should we continue to grow our revenue or slowdown and put standard systems and processes in place? To capture a bigger market share, should we come up with new products or improve our customer service?
2. Dysfunctional conflict – conflict that hinders group performance
Whenever the conflict is based on an interpersonal relationship, generally it is a dysfunctional conflict. It typically tries to answer ‘who’ – who should be given the responsibility, or accolade, or the blame. For example, who should head an inter-department team to find avenues to reduce cost? Or, since we are growing which department should move out of the head office – Accounts or Sales? Who (person or department) is responsible for this goof-up?
Of course functional conflicts seem to be necessary to take better decisions. It ensures utilization of every bit of information available in the organisation. And they seem completely benign… On the other hand, dysfunctional conflicts seem to be malignant – best left untouched. But the dysfunctional conflicts are sure to come up. Also, since we are thinking of possible adverse outcomes, can a functional conflict turn bitter? We know the answer to that – YES. Then how do we deal with these ill effects of conflicts?
The answer is surprisingly obvious – we must remove the emotions revolving around an interpersonal relationship. But can we really not look for who made the mistake or who should be rewarded? Actually, yes. Move from ‘who’ to ‘why’. Why did the goof-up happen? It will help us find systemic issues that lead to mistakes rather than blaming a person. Of course, if the reason is ‘human error’ from a particular person all the time, it might be time to change his responsibilities…
The mindset change from ‘who’ to ‘why’ ensures there is no scapegoat and the same mistake does not happen again. Similarly, instead of looking for the person to reward and arguing why his contribution was bigger, explore why someone was able to deliver his best and reward the person who created that system or environment that enabled people to deliver their best. Let there be tangible criteria to decide this ‘best’. And doing this has a very big advantage, without which we human beings can’t function effectively.
That advantage is called being fair. The reason interpersonal relationships create dysfunctional conflicts is that they seem unfair to either one of the party/person involved in the conflict. Developing standard policies and processes removes the subjectivity and the decision-making is perceived as fair. Moreover, the best of functional conflicts can quickly become toxic if interpersonal play is allowed there. In no time, lack of fairness raises its ugly head and soon there are ego issues and self-respect concerns that may jeopardize the entire opportunity to grow the organisation.
So the axioms to best utilize conflicts are:
1. Keep the conflicts functional – move from who to why/ what/ how
2. Ensure fairness – use policies and processes to keep the subjectivity out
However, it’s a bit early to rejoice. If you remember our mechanism to resolve conflicts is meetings – something we are already terrified of… So, what can we do about these conflict resolution meetings? There are various mechanisms to ensure that meetings do not become a waste of time. It starts from defining meeting outcomes before the meeting, to rituals about conducting the meeting, to even have standing meetings. Selling your ideas or views can become less stressful if you change your intent from ‘being right’ to finding the ‘right solution’. In fact, it will completely remove any stress and you will look forward to other views. This change of intent will also mean that you will naturally listen to others to find the right solution rather than for defending your argument.
We can of course find better answers to effectively utilise meetings. But what are the other mechanisms to find the solutions to conflicts? Now here is a functional conflict that I want to leave you with, to resolve based on the context of your organisation.
If you are facing conflicts that you are not able to resolve, or could better utilise conflicts by having a neutral facilitator, write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Author Profile: Madhukar Kumar is a leadership coach and believes in the philosophy of “Know Thyself”. His non-judgemental listening coupled with thought-provoking questioning has helped his clients to uncover authentic leadership. Academically, he holds an engineering degree from NIT Surathkal and an MBA from IIM Calcutta.