The Key to Healthy Conflict
A Facebook follower says, “I’d love to see a Leadership Freak blog post that addresses what healthy conflict looks like.”
Organizations pivot on conflict. Conflict strengthens or weakens relationships and organizations.
All healthy conflict has a “for.”
For or against:
Conflict often begins by fighting against something. Listen for expressions like:
- I don’t like.
- He always…
- I don’t want.
- Enflames passion by focusing on offenses.
- Engages in personal attack.
- Invites defensiveness.
Healthy conflict fights for something. Develop phrases like:
- I want.
- My goal is…
- What does a win look like?
Successful leaders clarify wins when conflict begins.
- Requires courage and vulnerability to declare yourself. Stop speaking for others. Speak for yourself.
- Defines success in behavioral terms. Be simple and specific.
- Defines success in organizational terms. How will “we” be better?
- Means starting fresh. Healthy conflict moves agendas forward. Moving forward means letting go of the past.
- Calls for alignment with organizational values, mission, and vision.
Unhealthy conflict only fights against. Healthy conflict knows what wins look like.
Bonus: Read comments about healthy conflict on Facebook.
What does healthy conflict look like?
Wow, did I learn this over the course of this last year. What a struggle! Conflict, though, really does push you to find where you draw your line – what you are willing to fight for, organizationally. #5 – alignment with organizational values, mission and vision – became like a fixed star I had to guide myself by. My biggest challenge is #4 – starting fresh. It was difficult not to carry my frustrations with me then, and it is still hard to leave them behind.
I tend to hang on to offenses too. Something in me wants to make them pay. Trouble is, making people pay doesn’t really help much.
When I coach leaders, I often ask, what would happen if you addressed this issue as if it was the first day? Can you forget the baggage and start fresh? It’s often an interesting and useful conversation.
Hmm, Katie, maybe conflict helps you to see your line then potentially redraw and align with greater resolve…that does sound healthy.
I know exactly what you mean. In poor environments, when there is less leadership/talent and fewer worthwhile jobs, things get competitive in an unhealthy way.
In such environments, good leadership values, optimism, starting afresh don’t *always* work!
Like Dan says, something in you wants to make offenders pay. But I’ve learned not to worry about them – they’re thick-skinned people. They’ll probably never pay – they’ll die, fat, rich, and happy.
If the going gets too bad, save your energies and find a better place to be. Yes, it means quitting! For satisfying my ego, I’ve dug in, led my way doing the right things and felt miserable and rarely rewarded. Would you rather be right and miserable and even get back-stabbed, or would give up that fight and go elsewhere to be happy? Go and be where people value you, and you can use your strengths to be more effective and hopefully, make an impact.
Life’s too short to waste on trying to fix things which are broken beyond recovery. They will pay, someday – not just in our lifetime.
Good question and post Dan. Healthy conflict looks like stating what you believe, even when it is unpopular. Being able to present rational reasons about that belief and evidence to support it. Listening to voices contrary to what you would like to see happen. And working to find some middle ground that best accommodates all parties, and moves the goal or activity forward. It is keeping and open mind and heart, and remaining aware of the greater good… or at least the “best” good that can be achieved.
You made me think about defining non-negotiables. Lets get everything on the table that we all must accept – that we can’t or won’t compromise on…. that can be an eye-opener.
You may find you can compromise or you may find that you’ve found a hill you’re prepared to fight for.
Conflict for me is simply when two different thoughts collide.
One healthy conflict I hope I have one evening is a date with Marrisa Tomei the same time as a date with Alyssa Milano!!!! Now THAT’S a healthy conflict!!!
For me it all starts with connected why’s. If we have connected those, then we both have our reasons to succeed clearly on the table. Our juice!!!! Cooperating with the order the grey matter processes info a pretty good idea.
Then what comes next is how are we gonna accomplish said agreed upon goals, right? How, honest, open, willing.
For me I know things will happen just as they should and I can present my side and shut up. If I trust the person or persons I am talking to and God, then clearly sharing my side is enough. How things turn out will be the way they turn out. I can go with the flow peacefully with a song in my heart or go kicking and screaming like a spoiled rotten child not getting his way. A choice.
For me healthy conflict looks like two healthy adults with connected why’s, agreed upon goals, trust and loyalty, sharing their ideas, pondering and together agreeing on the next right thing together.
Ok let the thumbs down commence!!! Lol
Me back to figuring how I can create my Marrisa, Allyssa conflict!!! Hehe
Shifterp back to my glorious Now!!
Letting go of outcomes and focusing on the process surly frees us.
Leaders are concerned about results. We can’t just let everything play out and end up where it wants to end. We are stewards of organizational objectives.
But, there is still great power in trusting the process.
So we can’t let go and let God?
Things are determined by the extent we exert our will?
Cool Dan we can nicely agree to disagree on those points.
I have found taking the stance of an Interested Observer that things do work out exactly as they are going to.
It was a tremendous deflation of my ego to find out I had far less and almost no effect in outcomes. I only fancied I did.
Now I am just along for the ride!!
Once I stepped back and just watched things happen this reality became not only clear but crystal clear. For me.
Maybe your experience has had you come to different conclusions?
So different is cool.
Have a great weekend. Turning over ones self will is quite the spiritual endeavor and not for the weak in constitution, I have found.
Self Willers keep banging away!!!
That rock never softens up I have found in my experience, maybe your experience will be different, who knows?
Impose that Will!!! Lol
SP back to now!
Is this a potential conflict? 🙂
Thanks for this post Dan, this is helpful! ~CV
Thanks Carlos, It’s a pleasure to serve.
Most of the time we can become successful by choosing “I can” path (positive). It also goes back to answering the “why” questions first before you determine the “how” and the “what” (Simon Sinek). Too often we get caught up defending or answering the negatives and the focus shifts from the possibilities to the obstacles. Sometimes that is our own doing because we forget to start with the “why.” I love the “fighting for” list – focusing on these 5 mindsets/behaviors is a great “can do” strategy.
Yes yes yes yes yes yes did I mention YES!!!
Can’t wait for Simons new book on company cultures Vicki how about you??
Also you mentioned “I can” in your brilliant post. Might “i can’t , we can” work better?
Thanks for your wonderful explanation of how the brain processes info and the best order to follow when figuring the best way to skin that cat!!! Why try to outthink the biology of the brain, silly, really!!! Hehe
Have a great day Vicki.
The shift from fighting against to fighting for is the thing that most changed me and my view of conflict. Things really change when we start talking about what we want rather than what we don’t want.
my old boss said some conflict in meetings is good – as long as it isn’t personal. Passion brings out strong emotions.
Yes, I’ve read that personal conflict is counter-productive. Of all types of conflict the personal stuff needs to be addressed.
I think it’s more fun to “fight” over the path forward. Give me a room full of people who will fight for something and a fire will erupt. Now, if you can just focus that fire.
Perfect timing…. I opened this up seconds after a conflict …..
Couple thoughts ….. The more work a leader has done on their own growth process means they can see a little more clearly the place that someone else comes from.
That never excuses the leader from standing strong on their boundaries, though.
Time outs are good. Reflection.
Heartfelt Writing instead of speaking to someone across the miles is just as valuable and conveys important points without a voice tone.
Not everyone gets leadership.
Leadership can be lonely… Hence why it’s much appreciated to have you, Dan and a group of folks who do get it.
Have a good weekend.
One of the things that stands out to me is the importance of decompressing.
Healthy conflict might have emotion but it’s not emotional… when emotions take over it’s time for time out.
Fights happen when two persons disagree on specific views. These can be categorized only after a third party [higher ups/top management] intervenes and understand the points of conflict and the involved behavior. Fights are obvious when you have good talents in the organization and every one tries to contribute with breaking the set systems and/or procedures.
Fights against happens when two egos clash and remain stubborn on maintaining individual stands with no readiness to listen or understand. Fight for happens when the matters are seen from the broader angle seeing the organization interest or values per se.
A healthy conflict is possible when two matured professionals disagree for the betterment of organization with a open mind. You need an environment of trust, progressive work culture and the sound top management who would encourage such differences and intervenes to take best out of both strong minds.
Fight against can be converted in a healthy fight with the top management’s intervention and hearing both sides with objectivity in mind. Keeping a professional faith and arriving at good solutions involving both the concerned parties for a constructive end is desirable.
Thanks Dr. Asher,
One of the things I really enjoyed about your comment was “fighting for happens when the matters are seen from the broader angle…”
Unhealthy conflict is only about individuals. Healthy conflict is about organizational betterment. It’s so easy to forget that.
I find the narrow view of conflict is easy. Someone has to be paying attention in order to broaden the perspective of all participants.
Interesting how the word ‘conflict’ has inherent negative baggage as many of us are conflict avoidant, when it is that dynamic tension that helps us stretch, grow and see beyond ourselves.
One key to healthy conflict might be transparency. Being very open and even invested in endorsing a healthy conflict light gets the negative conflict cockroaches scurrying from the room.
Why endorse it?–> to jump on Scott and Vicki’s bandwagon—because it provides a method of continuous improvement, if that is something you or your organization values. Stimulating, you bet! Shift your paradigms, definitely. Leave work at the end of healthy conflict wanting more…did I go too far, but yeah, even that.
And will throw in my current anthem, healthy conflict has a foundation of unconditional positive regard, in every comment, in every word, in every gesture, inflection, etc.
It’s true. We don’t like conflict because we are afraid of it. Maybe because it feels so out of control.
Here’s the message I’m taking from you. If we are going to have conflict then I am committed to what’s best for you within the context of our organization.
To me, most literally, “healthy conflict” is a contradiction in terms. Creative tension in a respectful atmosphere is a good thing; but if it escalates to conflict, the atmosphere has become dysfunctional and I don’t think there is anything healthy about it. I think to be a good leader a person has to be very engaged and aware of when a team relationship is on the verge of moving from one (creative tension) to the other (conflict). There are healthy ways to move the needle back toward the creative tension end of the gauge; but without an awareness of his/her team dynamics, a leader may end up faced with damage control.
I hadn’t thought of using the term creative tension. It seems to soften the blow.
If I hear your point, there is no such thing as healthy conflict. Is this a matter of semantics?
Perhaps it’s healthy outcomes that we are seeking.
The phrase “healthy conflict” is just troubling to me. By the time a situation rises to the level of conflict, I don’t see how a modifier like the word “healthy” can be applied. Your proposition that it is healthy outcomes to conflict that we are seeking seems much better. (And it may be, too, that my English major background makes me more susceptible to getting caught up in semantics!)
My personal belief is that if a person considers him/herself a leader, then one of her/his essential leadership skills should be to recognize when a situation is at risk of moving past the creative tension point and verging on conflict — and being able to mitigate things so that conflict is avoided.
Your insights are much appreciated.
You encourage me to think about the thorny issue of intervention. When do leaders step into a situation that threatens to escalate from creative tension to conflict?
I often grapple with the issue of timing in these situations.
One suggestion is to simply say that you see some unresolved issues and then ask what is being done to address them?
Piggy-backing on this post, Dan, it seems that many organizations are afraid of conflict (healthy or otherwise). Even with items 3, 4, and 5 positively defined, it seems that some organizations (and leaders) are sometimes threatened by anything that may predicate change.
I guess conflict, even (or especially) healthy conflict, is a precursor to change – and that can be scary. 🙂
As always, great post, Dan!
YOu brought the “change” word to the discussion. That’s a great point of clarity. Conflict is uncomfortable because it drives change. OR, at least, useful conflict does.
But there is something called healthy conflict.
My associate and I have these often………….many times after a few sweet Scotchs.
And one would not believe – – that is, if you think define conflict as negative – – how much is accomplished when you both have an open mind.
I always liked what Churchill said”:I like a man that grins when he fights”
Love the quote! It says so much about the way we disagree.
The level of dissent that is expressed openly varies between countries, and even between organizations. German engineers would appear to be far more combative in a meeting than their Japanese counterparts, yet both can be equally effective in expressing differing points of view to arrive at a better outcome.
This means we need to be careful when voicing “constructive conflict” in order to ensure our voice is neither too weak, nor too strong.
Some important principles:
1) Conflict that is based on egotism or pride is usually wrong.
2) Comflict that comes from wanting to help the organization to achieve its purpose or prevent it from serious harm can be good, if it is necessary.
3) Conflict that comes from voicing a truth that others cannot see or won’t admit to, from supporting deeply held values is often good and necessary, but can be harmful if motives are pure.
4) We know how to start conflicts, but stopping them can be difficult or impossible. All conflicts have an effect. There is wisdom in waiting a bit to respond to emails, to “counting to ten”, to “sleeping on it”, to seeking advice before starting the conflict. There is also, however, wisdom in not waiting any longer than is appropriate.
An excellent subject, with lots of things to think about.
Thank you, Dan.
I’m glad you shared your insights.
One of the things I’m taking from you is, “Don’t start something you cant end.” The idea suggests that all engaged should discuss outcomes early in the process.
I should have said “if motives are not pure”, rather than “if motives are pure”.
Proofreading is a good thing…
Healthy conflict is based on values and principles. Unhealthy conflict is based on self centric ground. First one is macro level development focused approach whereas second one is micro level selfish approach. In the organization when trust level is low and people feel more insecure, they intend to engage into unhealthy conflict to draw attention of superior in order to show their sincerity. And this leads to building unhealthy relationship. It means culture is build on unhealthy relationship with hidden intention of some people that superiors may not be aware.
Many times, such practices get fuel by support of management. Many times, even superiors support such unhealthy conflict because of their previous experience and they also know that they have reached to these position by the means of unhealthy conflict. So, the reason to believe is obvious for them.
Healthy conflict is symptom of good management behavior. Healthy practice encourages healthy conflict and vice-versa.
one leader has to be focus on his team! Not only in itself. Great post like always.
Excellent read – the times resonate with a “win/lose” perspective and ultimately the one who perceives him/herself to be the winner can ultimately be the loser because of lost trust, the loss of loyalty and the ripple effect that goes on and on…
Healthy conflict involves differences of opinion but never at the cost of holding the other party emotionally hostage.
Without a way to move forward, conflict can only spiral us backward with the risk that forward motion may no longer be possible to the degree it would have been before the “win/loss” scenario.
It takes a willingness to give and take, compromise, acknowledge differences and a genuine willingness to bury the hatchet and move forward. And that requires emotional maturity and a vision that things can be greatly improved moving forward.
This is an excellent discourse! I believe that healthy conflict is what is needed in organizations. And I love the term creative tension; keeping people on their toes in a healthy way.
Most of what I see in my work is when feelings are hurt during the course of relationships then the conflict starts; and at times an internal conflict that is kept suppressed. What I see is the danger of leaving these conflicts unresolved. As in any fierce conversation there needs to be a culture of trust in order to deal with these issues; this must start with the leader. A leader that is open his/her self to dealing with the tough issues or conflicts, gets the issues out on the table and encourages healthy dialogue.