How to Make Conflict Work to Your Advantage
Listen to Episode 126:
Episode 126 Transcript:
This episode is brought to you by Business Advancement Incorporated – enabling successful leaders and companies to accelerate to their next level of success. On the web at BusinessAdvance.com. And now, here’s Pam and Scott.
Pam Harper: Thanks, Chris. I’m Pam Harper, Founding Partner and CEO of Business Advancement Incorporated. And right across for me as always is my business partner and husband, Scott Harper. Hi Scott.
Scott Harper: Hi, Pam. It’s always great to join you again for another episode of Growth Igniters Radio. Our purpose is to spark new insights, inspiration, and immediately useful ideas for visionary leaders to accelerate themselves and their companies to their next level of innovation, growth and success. Now, Pam, today let’s talk about conflict.
Pam Harper: I don’t want to. [laughs]
Scott Harper: Well you may not want to, but let’s let’s do it anyway because we get a lot of questions about conflict. Many people are concerned that conflict in the workplace can be very counterproductive.
Pam Harper: Well, over the years I’ve given a lot of help and pointers about resolving clashes between coworkers at all different levels. The thing that has stayed with me, though, that we need to talk about more is this implication that conflict in the workplace isn’t a good thing. Actually, I believe the conflicts in the workplace have a better chance of producing the high-performance kinds of results and outcomes that we’re looking for rather than insisting on a “peaceful” workplace.
Scott Harper: In fact, what we have here really is a paradox. On one hand, we know — we’ve seen many times — that the more perspectives you have on any given situation — the strategy execution or whatever — the richer the decisions and the actions are that come out of that. However, the more diversity or perspectives you have, the more that opportunities for conflict come up. That could be either overt clashes or even worse, underlying pressed-down conflict.
Pam Harper: Well actually, I would say that more often than not conflict is very hard to detect. It’s more covert and it comes out in a lot of different ways. For example, you might be asking somebody to do something right and they say. And then you come back and the person hasn’t done this, and they say “I’m really sorry. I was too busy.”
Scott Harper: A little passive resistance there, right?
Pam Harper: That’s right. And they really are genuinely busy. But if you stop and think about it, maybe what’s really going on is they weren’t making it a priority. So too busy can be either legitimately somebody is overwhelmed, or they are too busy because they have other things they’re making a priority. Of course, we can’t know without finding out what’s behind it. But the point is that it’s hard to tell sometimes when we’re in conflict.
Scott Harper: And that hidden conflict is actually really harmful to a company. So what you’re saying, then, is that it’s better to bring these things out and try to get a handle on them so people can reach some sort of a mutually agreeable resolution. Is that right?
Pam Harper: That is one way to look at it. However, conflict can actually be the springboard for innovation and growth. It all depends on how it’s led. And this starts with creating a new understanding of the value of conflict.
Scott Harper: Now, you said it depends upon how conflict has led. Most of us are familiar with the concept of conflict management or the term conflict management. What’s the difference between conflict management and leading conflict?
Pam Harper: Managing conflict is tactical. It’s viewed primarily as a negative at best you can learn from it but you hope that you’re not going to have to deal with it. Whereas leading conflict is strategic. It’s a driver for innovation and growth. And although there are certainly times when it can get out of control, the more that you’re aware of the principles that shape conflict constructively, the more productive you can become.
Scott Harper: I agree with you there. The thing is that way too many people are conditioned to view conflict as a negative, not a positive.
Pam Harper: That’s right. In fact, I came across an article in The New York Times by Adam Grant, a professor of management and psychology at the Wharton School of University of Pennsylvania, and author of the book “Originals.” The title of the article is “Kids, Would you please start fighting.” His point is that it’s good for the creative process to have people shoot down your ideas. He says if no one ever argues, you’re not likely to give up the old ways of doing things, let alone try new ones. And so disagreement to him is the antidote to groupthink, and we’re considered most imaginative when we’re out of sync.
He also believes that childhood is the best time to start to learn this. The more that children see their parents engaging in constructive conflict and they themselves participate in this, the more that they’re able to grow a thicker skin and to develop empathy and all the things that are required to deal with ambiguity. He also finishes off the article with some recommendations on how to instill this sense of constructive conflict or courteous conflict, as he calls it, in children as they’re growing up.
Scott Harper: But what about all the people who weren’t raised as children to be tolerant of conflict?
Pam Harper: That’s where leadership comes in. We need to exemplify what productive conflict looks like, especially as we’re dealing with ambiguity about what’s next.
Scott Harper: OK. So how do we do that?
Pam Harper: That’s what we’re going to talk about in our next segment. We’re going to take a quick break now, and when we come back we’ll talk more about the principles of productive conflict. Stay with us…
Scott Harper: This is Growth Igniters Radio with Pam Harper and Scott Harper. We’re brought to you by Business Advancement Incorporated — on the web at businessadvance.com. We enable successful companies to accelerate to their next level of innovation and growth. And if you like what you’re hearing, spread the good word! Go to GrowthIgnitersRadio.com, select episode 126 and use the social share links on the left side of the page to tell your social media communities all about us.
Pam Harper: Welcome back to Growth Igniters Radio with Pam Harper — that’s me — and Scott Harper. Today Scott and I are talking about how to make conflict work to your advantage. We’ll have links to related articles in the resources section at GrowthIgnitersRadio.com, episode 126.
Scott Harper: OK Pam, we’ve been talking about how creating an atmosphere of productive conflict in the workplace can be far more advantageous to innovation and good decision making than stuffing it down and having a simmering conflict that isn’t resolved. The question is, what role can leaders play in creating that atmosphere?
Pam Harper: As I said in the first segment, we as leaders need to be the exemplars. Because one of the big issues in any company is what is the culture for dealing with conflict? So as the top leadership exemplifies that it’s okay, and In fact it’s desirable, to deal productively with any kind of conflict — that’s going to send a signal to the rest of the organization that this is the way that we handle it.
Scott Harper: OK so how do you exemplify?
Pam Harper: By catching the conflict at its earliest stages. Sometimes all the parties involved are experiencing it and everybody knows it. That’s the classic “elephant in the room.”
Scott Harper: So they feel the conflict, but they’re not addressing it…
Pam Harper: That’s right. And other times, one party is experiencing it and no one else is even aware that it’s going on.
Scott Harper: So in either case, it’s really important to call it out and create a sense of comfort with figuring out what’s going on and what we’re going to do about it.
Pam Harper: Yes. That’s especially important if you’re the leader and you’re observing something that’s going on that has to do with different departments or functions. You really need to be comfortable with raising this and making sure that everybody involved is able to face it. We’ll get into specifics about that in the third segment.
Scott Harper: OK, so once you identify that there may be some conflict brewing that is being recognized or not, what’s the next principal for uncovering the underlying issues?
Pam Harper: There is always more to the story. That’s my favorite saying.
Scott Harper: So, underlying issues… What do you mean by that?
Pam Harper: For example, one company I worked with had a marketing function that was reaching out to a certain set of customers. And at the same time, they had another sales and marketing function that was working with the same customers in different ways.
Scott Harper: OK, that had to have been causing a lot of problems…
Pam Harper: It was causing tremendous confusion on the part of customers and between the two functions. Now, these two functions had been through conflict management training before I came onto the scene. And yet they were still in conflict.
Scott Harper: OK, so something was going on that wasn’t being addressed.
Pam Harper: Obviously. When I traced it back, what I discovered was that there were two executives at the top of the organization that had the same accountabilities.
Scott Harper: How could that happen.?
Pam Harper: Because the company had just recently merged two different divisions. And what happened was that these different divisions actually had the same customers in two different ways.
Scott Harper: So and this wasn’t called out. It obviously was a mystery of sorts.
Pam Harper: It was something that needed to be addressed.
Scott Harper: So finding the underlying causes that weren’t immediately obvious really paid off.
Pam Harper: That’s right. Sometimes the first answer is the real answer. But what’s really important here is to make sure that we’re also testing assumptions about what else could be going on before rushing to a conclusion.
Scott Harper: OK and we’ll get into some specifics of how to do that in the third segment. Now let’s talk about the third principle behind creating an environment for productive conflict.
Pam Harper: Focus on learning from each other.
Scott Harper: Yeah, because sometimes it’s not a matter of I’m right and you’re wrong or the other way around. Sometimes that answer lies in between, and it’s only by hashing it out and finding out what each other knows that we can actually get to a better decision and a better resolution.
Pam Harper: And that’s especially true when you’re talking about being in uncharted territory. “We’ve never done this before. Who knows who’s right?”
Scott Harper: That reminds me of a situation where I first learned about how to conflict like this. It was way back in my early days of leading a research group in consumer healthcare R&D. We had a technical problem that we were trying to solve with one of our products, and one of the team members was quite frankly rather abrasive. She would get into arguments with people in group meetings. In individual conversation with her outside of the group, I learned that she was very frustrated because she didn’t feel like people were listening to her. But when she explained in a calmer moment what she wanted to do — what her ideas were — they made a lot of sense.
Pam Harper: So we need to learn to listen to each other in new ways and go beyond being put off by somebody style.
Scott Harper: Right. And so this allows us then to get to the point where we use that conflict and the different ideas to their full advantage to come to a much better place than if we just shut somebody down because we didn’t agree with them.
Pam Harper: So by choosing to use these principles on a regular basis we can actually make conflict work to our advantage and springboard to an even higher level of performance. We’re going to take another quick break now, and when we come back, we’ll talk about immediately useful ideas for how you can make conflict work to your advantage. Stay with us…
Scott Harper: You’re listening to Growth Igniters Radio with Pam Harper and Scott Harper, brought to you by Business Advancement Incorporated — on the web at businessadvance.com.
Pam Harper: If you’re listening for the first time, welcome! We release a new Growth Igniters Radio episode every two weeks. On alternate weeks we send members of our community a short thought-provoking blog post. We give our perspectives on an emerging trend or a news item that you need to know about. We also include an immediately useful tip to put this idea right to use.
Scott Harper: Now in tune with this week’s theme of making conflict work to our advantage, here’s an invitation to dig deeper into the critical issue of unaddressed conflict. Download one of our most popular Harper reports “How to take control of the elephants in the room.”
Pam Harper: In this report, we discuss not only why these elephants exist, but how to stop them from derailing your company’s success. We also give you steps you can immediately take to create the conversations that are critical to dramatically accelerate momentum.
Scott Harper: Just go to GrowthIgnitersRadio.com, Episode 126. Scroll down to resources and click download elephants in the room report.
Pam Harper: Welcome back to Growth Igniters Radio with Pam Harper and Scott Harper. Today Scott and I are talking about how to make conflict work to your advantage. You can get resources for this episode by going to GrowthIgnitersRadio.com, Episode 126, and scrolling down to “resources.”
Scott Harper: Now Pam, we’re in our third segment. Let’s fulfill the promise that we made in the last one where we talked about the principles of making conflict work to the advantage of our companies. Let’s get more specific on how we actually apply each of those three principles.
Pam Harper: Well, we were talking about the first principle of being an exemplar by catching conflict at its earliest stages.
Scott Harper: This starts with us in individual modeling the behavior on an everyday basis — of being comfortable with calling out issues as you see them arising and encouraging people in a non-threatening way to come up with new solutions.
Pam Harper: Yes. The more that we ourselves are exemplifying how we want people to raise issues and come up with new solutions, that’s going to be something that they will take seriously.
Scott Harper: And of course they will put it into practice if they are reinforced regularly.
Pam Harper: That’s right. So think about all the ways that we reinforce behaviors. There is performance review. There is promotion, and so on.
Scott Harper: And the more you build this recognition into your behavior on a regular basis the more it’s going to take hold.
Pam Harper: This goes back to something that Adam Grant was talking about in the article, which is the more that all of us see our leaders exemplifying that “it’s OK to bring up tough issues and we will get through it and we will come up with something new,” that becomes part of the culture.
Scott Harper: Great. So let’s get to the second piece of practical advice. Once we identify that there’s a potential conflict, how can we get to the underlying issues?
Pam Harper: We need to have conversations, and not interrogations. Questions are great, you know, and we need to go beyond our assumptions…
Scott Harper: OK. “What’s going on? What is this all about?…”
Pam Harper: … What, where, when, how, who — you know, all of those things. But if I feel grilled, then it’s going to create discomfort. We’ve talked with our colleague Judith Glaser about this; she’s the author of the book “Conversational intelligence.” She talks about the amygdala, which is the most primitive part of our brain that’s hardwired to protect us from harm to our body or ego. And this is where we decide how we’re going to react to a threat. So whether it’s fight or flight or freeze or appease — these all get in the way of productive conflict. So what we need to do is to create an environment that leads to trust. And what I can tell you is that the more that we collectively are creating a conversation there is going to be a lot more discovery and we’re going to be able to get to what really is going on.
Scott Harper: And this sets the stage for putting the third principle into effect: co-creating for a solution. What’s the practical advice for actually making that happen?
Pam Harper: Improvisation. If you think about an improvisation group, they listen to each other and they build on each other. They use the principle of “Yes, and.” Back in one of our earlier episodes, we had Kelly Leonard from The Second City talking about his book. So the principle of “yes, and” is that “yes” means that I hear you. It doesn’t always mean that I agree with you. And then I’m putting my own idea on top with that. We’re building together. So if we can come up with through “yes, and” an agreement on what we see as what the issue is, we build on that.
Scott Harper: And this can work even when people initially start from points of disagreement about the right way forward.
Pam Harper: Yes. And it does work well especially if you combine it with elements of conversational intelligence so that people do have a deeper trust of each other already. When we’re focused on creating a solution, We can get there.
Scott Harper: And returning to where we started, if we embrace and celebrate the fact that all of us have different ideas, experiences, and styles — and we leverage those differences — that solution is going to be more powerful and more effective and get us more results we want. Pam, this is a great conversation. Do you have any final thoughts?
Pam Harper: Conflict is natural, but rather than seeing it as a problem to be solved, we can view it as an opportunity for innovation and growth especially in uncharted territory.
Scott Harper: Thanks, Pam. And thanks to you out there for listening to Growth Igniters Radio with Pam Harper and Scott Harper. To check out resources related to today’s conversation, share on social media, read our bios, or sign up for the Growth Igniters community, go to GrowthIgnitersRadio.com, and select episode 126.
Pam Harper: Until next time, this is Pam Harper…
Scott Harper: and Scott Harper…
Pam Harper: Wishing you continued success, and leaving you with this thought to discuss with your team:
Scott Harper: What can we do — starting today — to make conflict a springboard for innovation and growth in our company?