Leading Healthy Conflict (and Ending the Unhealthy)
If known solely by accomplishment, Abraham Lincoln would be hailed as the president who abolished slavery and led the country during the American Civil War. What he is lesser known for, however, is what Doris Kearns Goodwin refers to as his “team of rivals” in the biography she penned under that title.
After election, Lincoln took the unparalleled step of appointing his previous presidential competitors to his cabinet. He was noted as saying that he needed “the strongest men of the party in the cabinet” and was not about to deprive the country of their wisdom and insight because they came from opposing parties. He knew, too, that the conflict that would arise from intelligent discourse would help rather than hinder any decision making on behalf of the nation.
The Power of Conflict
We as leaders need to adopt this way of thinking. Conflict, when mismanaged, is obviously detrimental to your bottom line. But if you’ve done your job in hiring and onboarding a highly capable team of employees, you are bound to run into differences of opinion.
The mark of a true leader is not quickly ignoring or squelching conflict, but recognizing that differences exist, and harnessing the discord to the organization’s advantage. As a leader, your job is to hold two opposing ideas in conflict in a way that breeds healthy tension, and then help the two parties to work toward resolution. There are three key elements that help generate healthy conflict.
A leader should create a climate that supports addressing conflict in a timely and respectful manner. Like Lincoln, this in part involves bringing genuine diversity to the same space. Doing so produces creative tension and sets an example for the rest of the organization, showing the importance of differing opinions in the decision-making process.
The key is to keep all parties focused on a shared goal during discussion and to nip destructive conflict in the bud. Setting the tone for a culture of healthy conflict will help others recognize what can and cannot be considered useful when arguing with one another.
Finding the “Why”
A leader must also be able to identify the conflict and find the root interest of the parties—or, as Roger Fisher and William L. Ury put it in their book “Getting to Yes,” finding the “interest behind the position.” Often, when people are at odds, they are not fully articulating their interests and are instead just insisting upon where they stand.
If a third party can get to the bottom of the “why” behind each stance, compromise is much easier to come by; often, the two conflicting parties will realize they aren’t at odds at all. Once a leader can cut through a dogged attitude, the conflict will unravel.
Finally, the character of a leader will determine whether your company will generate constructive or needless conflict. A leader must provide a sensible core to the organization. An erratic leader will create a culture of individuals who are very reactive and in turn will position leadership as a threat instead of a guiding force. In this environment, conflicts are much more likely to arise, and part of that stems from the leader’s temperament. Having someone with high EQ—or with a willingness to develop it—is crucial to preventing unhealthy conflict within an organization.
Conflict is not in and of itself a problem within an organization. Leaders must recognize what is constructive and what is not, and from there foster that which can help innovate, and create and suppress that which is ultimately destructive.
How do you stave off unhealthy conflict in your organization? How do you foster a culture of healthy discord? What tips do you have for harnessing creative tension?