Conflict resolution, conflict management, how to handle conflict … there’s lots of advice out there about how to deal with conflict in your business. But what if we accepted and embraced it, rather than attempting to banish it? What if it turned out that conflict was good for business?

1. High levels of performance

Achieving high levels of performance is at the top of the to do list for most leadership teams, but a workplace that supports high performance working looks very different in 2018 to how it’s looked in the past. Communication and trust are more important than they ever have been in businesses where performance depends more on knowledge transfer and discretionary effort than producing the maximum number of widgets in accordance with a detailed job description.  

“It’s the fear of conflict, not the conflict itself, that hinders the effectiveness of a team”

It’s the fear of conflict, not the conflict itself, that hinders the effectiveness of a team and the relationships within it. And it’s the relationships between people, and the kind of culture those relationships create, that enable our business aims to be achieved. But people will go a long way out of their way to avoid conflict and that avoidance can cost businesses a lot.

When fear of conflict is overcome, communication is improved and people have the conversations that need to be had to get great performance. When people do not fear conflict, they give each other feedback that leads to improvement and growth; they speak out when they disagree with an idea someone else has come up with; they challenge the way that things are done when they know they can be done better.

We must learn to embrace conflict, not fear it. 

2. Inclusion

We hear a lot of talk about diversity, but our focus ought to be on inclusion. Without inclusion, the diverse workforce we’re trying to create won’t add the value we know it can. Inclusive teams welcome diversity, not just in terms of gender, sexual orientation, skin colour, cultural heritage, ability, but the diversity of thought that people unafraid of conflict are able to bring.

“Without inclusion, the diverse workforce we’re trying to create won’t add the value we know it can.”

Teams that are inclusive truly embrace conflict. They invite people to disagree with each other and with the way things are done. They support people to share their views, even when they know other people will think they’re wrong. What that means is that everyone has a voice, and that everyone is able to make a real contribution to how the business runs. They are truly engaged.

To be inclusive, teams must create a culture in which conflict is embraced and diversity delivers.

3. Innovation

“Difference and conflict must be encouraged and embraced to enhance innovation.”

Many teams struggle with innovation. They focus on compliance and doing business as usual, because that’s what’s measured and what seems to matter most to those that matter. But to be creative and deliver something innovative, we need to do something different and difference is the cause of conflict. We avoid conflict at the cost of innovation.

Innovative teams use difference and welcome it. They are curious about difference and they explore and seek to understand it and learn from it. They adapt and grow, improve incrementally and find better ways to better meet their customers’ needs.

Difference and conflict must be encouraged and embraced to enhance innovation.

Embracing conflict

We don’t often listen properly to each other, particularly other people that disagree with us. When we do hear people expressing different views, we may feel a need to attack their position or to defend our own, or to stop dealing with them altogether. But what if we really listened, to understand rather than respond?

“We all see and hear the world through a unique filter that’s formed from our own experiences, values and beliefs.”

It really is worth listening. We all see and hear the world through a unique filter that’s formed from our own experiences, values and beliefs. This means that we all experience the world a little differently. Our responses to the world and to the other people in it are guided by the way we experience it, and also by our own physiological and psychological needs. That makes us all rather complex, all a little different and all very interesting.

Exploring those differences and what has created them develops our understanding of ourselves and can enrich our relationships with other people. Exploring difference builds trust and enables us to collaborate more effectively with others. Importantly, it also reduces fear of conflict. If we’re curious about ourselves and about others, we don’t fear disagreement and we embrace difference.