Why and how innovative organizations welcome conflict
Global Marketing, The Myers-Briggs Company
4 min read
When managed well, conflict can increase worker engagement, productivity, and innovation. Conversely, poorly managed conflict breeds distrust, work delays, communication breakdown, and toxic work relationships.
While conflict management has always been a core competence, today it’s imperative.
Many equate conflict with fighting, arguing, and other undesirable behaviors. These, however, can be better thought of as ways people address conflict, rather than conflict itself. Put simply, conflict is when one person's or group's concerns, ideas, perspectives, or interests appear to be incompatible with those of another person or group.
And people handle conflict in any number of ways. They might avoid it altogether or try to win at all costs. Or, they might try to meet the other person halfway, or in some cases cave in and give the other person most or all of what they want.
In fact, a major reason why conflict is equated with fighting is that most people aren’t aware that they have a variety of choices in how they handle it and tend to default to one or two "modes."
Conflict management skills can be learned
Most of us experience some form of conflict regularly. Think about how frequently your interests and ideas conflict with those of your peers, subordinates, customers and, probably most unpleasantly, your boss. Keeping this in mind, conflict management skills can be an essential arrow in your quiver, whether you’re thinking about your own career success or the success of your team or organization.
Honing conflict management skills isn’t terribly complicated, but it does require some foundational knowledge about:
- How to identify and assess conflict situations.
- The range of potential approaches to conflict.
- How you and others tend to reflexively approach conflict.
- Basic conflict management tools and strategies.
To bring it all together, organizations need a framework and language for identifying various conflicts and strategies for dealing with them. Let’s start by exploring how to characterize different kinds of conflict, as well as some common sources of it.
Different kinds of conflict and their sources
There are three major categories of conflict: task, interpersonal, and values. While research shows that well-managed conflict can be highly beneficial for teams that are dealing with complex tasks, interpersonal and values-based conflicts are generally negative.
Part of effective conflict management, therefore, involves optimizing the approach to conflict surrounding tasks while de-escalating interpersonal and values-based conflict.
Conflict sources are limitless and as varied as the human beings who engage in them. With that said, there are certain themes of conflict that are more common—particularly in the workplace.
• Multiple generations: We now have four generations working together, each with its own assumptions, values, and nuances. Needless to say, trying to get multigenerational teams on the same page and working toward a common goal can create tension.
• Flexible workplaces: Spurred in no small part by Covid-19 lockdowns, flexible workplaces have given rise to a host of issues, ranging from unconventional working hours to virtual meeting protocol. All of these issues may be fuel for conflict.
• Cultural diversity: Additionally, in the US we now have perhaps the most culturally diverse teams we’ve ever experienced. Language barriers, cultural values, social cues, and history can add layers of complexity to the potential conflicts that may arise.
These are just a few common examples. But it’s easy to see how the three kinds of conflict I mentioned might emerge from any of these situations.
If interpersonal and value-based conflicts can be more effectively de-escalated, task conflict may provide opportunities for better decision-making and innovation by opening teams up to a wider range of ideas and knowledge.
Tools for handling conflict
People usually don’t have a standardized way of conceptualizing conflict. And when conflict rears its head, most people reflexively think of it as a negative, overlooking opportunities it might present.
Providing a framework for approaching conflict, therefore, is critical. The most popular model is the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument (TKI), which identifies five ways that people naturally tend to approach conflict:
- Competing: The ‘I win, you lose’ approach.
- Avoiding: You duck out of the conflict altogether.
- Accommodating: You let the other person win this one.
- Compromising: Each party gives way a little bit but gains a little bit as well in this solution.
- Collaborating: You work with the other party to find a suitable, win-win solution.
When people identify the mode they tend to reflexively use, and are made aware of alternate approaches, they can make conscious decisions about whether their natural approach—or perhaps another—is best given the circumstances.
While the optimum approach should be dictated by the situation, leaders can benefit from being aware of common problems that come along with each of these modes.
For example, people who underuse Collaboration often view teammates as obstacles. This could be because they’re defaulting to Competing, and therefore only seeking to win. But it could also be because they’re defaulting to Avoiding or Accommodating and opting to consistently neglect their own interests. In either case, this can lead to sour relationships and disengagement.
Things to keep in mind when designing your strategy for conflict
To wrap things up, here are a few general things to keep in mind as you consider your organization’s approach to conflict:
- Well-managed conflict can be positive. In fact, cultivating a certain amount of task-oriented conflict may be desirable, as it may surface people’s ideas and increase engagement by helping people feel that their voice is heard.
- Train people to be aware of how they tend to naturally approach most conflicts.
- Teach people to observe how others on their team tend to approach conflict.
- Help people understand the options for handling conflict and make conscious, deliberate decisions regarding the best approach.
Remember that conflict is inevitably part of the human condition—it’s how we handle it that’s important.
Organizations that learn to handle it well—using deliberate, structured approaches—can prosper.
This article was written by Sherrie Haynie, Sr. Director of US Professional Services at The Myers-Briggs Company, and first published by Forbes Coaches Council, October 2022.