Creating the right kind of conflict | Lesli Dullum-Tutterrow

In most business environments, you have people with differing experience in dealing with conflict

Unproductive conflict can wreak havoc in your organization.

In most business environments, you have a mix of people — a cornucopia of humans with differing temperaments and experiences when it comes to dealing with conflict.

Many of us approach conflict in the same ways we saw modeled growing up. This is great, if the modeling or learned behavior was healthy, respectful and productive. Unfortunately, for many, conflict in our family of origin didn’t go so well and we bring these dysfunctional dynamics right along with us each day into our workplaces.

It is no wonder that many in leadership positions feel overwhelmed and under-equipped when it comes to dealing with conflict.

Let’s identify unproductive conflict versus productive conflict.

Unproductive conflict is what business owners and managers notoriously complain about. It is all the nonsense, petty arguments, sarcasm and conversations that take us away from productive, meaningful and essential work. Its damaging effects are both seen and unseen. Over the long haul, it creates a breeding ground for distress, discontent, ill will, sabotage or avoidance. The fallout is increased turnover and decreased morale, productivity and profitability.

Productive conflict, on the other hand, is a welcome guest. It is conflict that arises between employees, teams and/or leaders where there is a high level of engagement, emotional investment, and trust in the company and with one another.

This is where communication and creativity shine as we bring our most fearless, focused selves to the table. When engagement and trust are high, we can identify real issues, intelligently debate them, and voice our true thoughts, feelings and opinions. Not only can we disagree without fear of reprisal, but we learn to thrive on hearing opinions and ideas which differ from our own.

In this environment, the flow of great exchanges of opinions and ideas become the norm. People feel heard, and have the ability to hear one another. The mantra in this culture: everyone is valued and every voice matters. When differing opinions arise, there is a curiosity toward further discovery with the goal of doing what is best for the company and adhering to core values.

If you are a business owner or leader, you might be scratching your head right now and wondering: Does this really happen? The answer is, “Yes.” I’ve helped organizations achieve it — and it is a beautiful thing to witness!

It sounds simple enough, but why is the productive conflict-focused workplace such an anomaly?

Some execs/leaders want head bobbers. The status-quo folks like people agreeing with them. They are attached to that dynamic and are reticent to let it go. Call it ego-stroking, complacency, or fear and insecurity; we can all get too attached to the way things are.

Leadership hasn’t identified unproductive conflict as a serious problem. Some leaders adopt the “That’s just the way it is” mindset. They see unproductive conflict as unavoidable.

Think of it this way. Would you ever interview a candidate for hire and in the interview express, “Now, all we really want is for you to work at about 60 percent capacity of what you are capable of”? That is the consequence of a culture that subtly sends the message: “Don’t speak out. Don’t tell us what’s really going on.”

You will not get what you pay for — the full knowledge spectrum from your staff or teams.

Leadership does not know how to make the shift. They may have this dynamic in their sights but are unsure how to guide the process of shifting from the “bad” conflict into the good. They may need some outside assistance.

Three ways to begin the shifting process:

1. Start modeling what the right kind of conflict looks like so people can follow your lead. When differences of opinions or ideas arise, initiate conversation that expands on them. “So it sounds like you think we should _____. Tell me more about that.”

2. Hire well and make expectations clear to all: Unproductive conflict is not welcome here. Be sure each person understands what their part is in creating a safe and curious environment where everyone has a voice. Encourage and equip people to speak to one another in productive ways.

3. Create the environment conducive to your goals. There ought not be one topic that is taboo but rather the message is, “We are safe here. We welcome lively debate.”

Sit back, put your feet up, and ahhhh … enjoy the absence of all that drama.

— Lesli Dullum-Tutterrow is chief wellness officer and executive consultant/trainer for The Wellspring Company.