“Peace is not absence of conflict, it is the ability to handle conflict by peaceful means.” — Ronald Reagan, 40th President of the United States.
Many workplace leaders consider conflict between employees a dangerous thing, and it’s no wonder. We’ve all seen the results of clashing personalities and company politics: distraction, discontent, resentment, gossip, lost jobs, resignations, and other productivity killers. As a result, some managers go to great lengths to avoid conflict. But overcompensation can prove equally dangerous when it devolves into complacency, or worse, groupthink—where everyone thinks alike and disagreement can’t or won’t be tolerated. “Yes men” have doomed more than one company, especially when the groupthink became tinged with arrogance (think Enron).
For a newer example, consider Blackberry. Once the fastest-growing company in the world, it recently faded into near obscurity, becoming a relatively minor acquisition of Canadian holding company Fairfax Financial. Rather than face the reality that consumer rather than business applications would drive smartphone sales, Blackberry execs collectively mistakenly decided otherwise, turned their backs on consumers—and lost their market share to iPhones and Androids. Perhaps a little dissention in the ranks would have done some good.
The Flip Side of Conflict
Does this mean you should give workplace conflict a chance? To some extent, yes. Conflict doesn’t have to stifle innovation or bring your workflow to a screeching halt, but dissention definitely has a place within workplace discussions. You may not agree with or listen to everyone, but at least they’ll have had their say and have ownership in the final decision. If nothing else, this lets people blow off some steam and feel more engaged—crucial factors in performance and productivity. Better yet, you may hear some innovative ideas with the potential to revitalize your business or fatten the bottom line.
Let’s look at a few other reasons to let team members clash occasionally.
1. It sparks healthy debate and competition. When people can argue about where they’re going, you avoid the blind agreement that characterizes groupthink. It also stirs up the team culture, especially when handled in a polite, professional manner without fear of ridicule. If an idea looks like it won’t work, let debate sort it out—don’t just cut it down immediately. Some ideas need a little time to mature. As for competition, friendly rivalry (especially in pursuit of a reward) can increase motivation, pushing productivity and end value higher for everyone.
2. It results in better understanding of others. When you air your differences, you learn why other people think the way they do—and this might change your own mind. At the very least, the discussion can provide new insight into another person’s approach and beliefs, even if you continue to disagree.
3. It strengthens the team when you work through conflict—either in the sense of surviving it together when it comes at you from outside, or in the sense of overcoming it within the group. The team ends up stronger and more productive.
4. It gives everyone a voice in decision-making, making sure no one feels left out, thereby enhancing commitment and engagement.
5. It allows constructive change. Well-reasoned disagreement, especially when the dissenter stands by it, can result in improvement not just for one project, but for subsequent ones as well. Remember the play and film 12 Angry Men? If one juror hadn’t stood by his beliefs and disproved the “evidence” one point at a time, an innocent man might have been convicted. In challenging the status quo, the solo juror shattered long-held assumptions.
6. It short-circuits worse problems. Rather than allowing resentment to fester into something truly dangerous, properly-handled conflict allows individuals to resolve their differences before they explode.
A Delicate Equilibrium
Neither all-out warfare nor colorless groupthink serves you well in business. But dominant species or not, human beings remain products of nature—and nature rewards those who strive the hardest for the betterment of the group. So within specific guidelines, allow your people some level of conflict within their work lives. Careful handling of honest disagreements can inject a much needed breath of fresh air into the workplace atmosphere.