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Conflict - can it help drive change?

When you first hear the word conflict what comes to mind?  I naturally think back to my upbringing where I was discouraged from any form of conflict.  I was instructed to always do what I was told.   I must admit, this mindset has stayed with me and it took many years and coaching from colleagues and leaders for me to change.

So when I heard Dr. Liane Davey speak about conflict at The Art of Leadership conference earlier this month, it got me thinking about conflict and how it can drive change within the workplace.  What I’ve learned throughout my career is that avoiding conflict solves nothing.  Instead, it inhibits innovation, collaboration and progress.  It provides a greater risk of having group think, avoids the real issues and makes even the smallest decisions hard.  Culturally, it can foster an environment with minimal diversity, where everyone is a carbon copy of one another.  This is not what you want and in fact research has told us that companies with:

In a world where change has become a part of the everyday and is happening more rapidly then ever, how do we overcome our fears of conflict at work?

The first step is making sure it is embedded within the culture.  A culture that is not only agile, but encourages a safe environment where employees feel empowered to share their thoughts and engage in open dialogue are able to try new things.  Conflict isn’t about arguing, it’s about having those crucial and constructive conversations, investigating all the options on the table and developing the ability to work through roadblocks.   Start-ups are great examples of the benefits that can be seen from having an agile culture.

The second step is that it must be managed appropriately for it to be an effective tool.  This means that leaders must be able to facilitate or mediate conflict within their teams – by remaining objective, listening, and not being reactive.  It’s also important for leaders to understand the diversity within their teams so that they can adapt their management style accordingly. I’ve been fortunate enough to have leaders that have encouraged me to think outside the box and have worked in team environments where conflict is welcome.  The outcome often resulted in significant wins for the team and the business.

The third step is to help your people understand how to disagree.  As leaders we have a responsibility to engage and develop our people.   One of the ways to do this is by creating a team environment where they know how to productively disagree with one another.   This can be done through structured team meetings, leveraging collaboration tools like Slack or Microsoft Teams so that things can be addressed in real-time, and with conflict resolution training.  There are many resources and tools available to train individuals on how to manage conflict.

The fourth step is to know when to pick your battles.  It’s ok to disagree, but it’s also ok to let things go.   Not everything has to be a conflict and sometimes it just makes more sense to proceed with the status quo.  What matters here is knowing what to prioritize and when to engage in conflict.   While these circumstances are not easy to identify, a great trick is to think about how much it may contribute to the overall business strategy or results, or how it may impact your team.

The final and fifth step is to ensure everyone understands how to move forward once decisions have been made.   Now that you have fostered an environment where conflict is encouraged, it’s important to also be able to take the next step and come up with a plan of action on how to proceed.  Once a decision has been made, everyone must be on board and possess a clear understanding of the next steps.  Moving forward will be challenging if you’re not able to manage the nay-sayers.   Finally, it’s especially important for leaders to show a united front, and use the same messaging and activities to get their people on the same board.

Today it’s impossible to avoid conflict at work.  Businesses and leaders have a responsibility to lead their people through disagreements so that innovation and long-term success can occur.  What’s more is that businesses don’t have the option to sit still. If you don’t believe me, take a closer look at how some of the most successful companies leverage conflict as a catalyst for success today.



Siri Maldonado Director of Marketing & Communications Toronto



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