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Is Workplace Conflict Destructive or Creative?

Aug 17, 2007
Whenever you work with people, conflict is inevitable. The tension created by daily conflict either results in wasted time, decreased productivity, and poor decisions or the sort of internal competition that pushes each individual to do their best, if for no other reason that convince their coworkers that they can do it.

This inevitable conflict is either destructive or creative. The destructive conflict is toxic to relationships and hurts people and organizations and this is the one that needs managing. In my experience creative conflict seems to be cultural in nature. It's how the people themselves react and address each other and the situations they face together.

If you've ever seen "American Chopper" on the Discovery Channel you know what I mean by creative conflict. There is a lot of yelling going on. These guys are not shy about sharing their opinions when they disagree with one another. If you were a stranger who walked into their shop you might think WWIII had broken out.

In fact, that is how they relate to one another - there is no ambiguity, they tell it like it is in the moment. Imagine how much more they accomplish because they use the tension to air their different opinions, right now - and then get on with it. It's possible that this is just a TV show and these guys have nice quiet meetings in the board room, listening to various committee reports, before the speak up, but that's not likely. I bet they are who we see them as being.

In three decades working with family businesses I have seen dozens and dozens of companies who harness conflict creatively, and in so doing get the most out of everyone as well as optimum results overall. They don't waste time on what's not working just because it was the bosses idea. They stop what they're doing and point out the other person's mistake then show them how to fix it. Nothing and no one or their opinion is sacred - it's all about getting the job done.

Sadly I have seen experts try to get them to change their behavior, be more polite to one another and offer more politically correct input in an ever more constructive manner. In other words they (the experts) want other people to be more like them.

So instead of helping their clients manage the destructive conflict that exists, they are offering suggestions on how to fix what isn't broken.

I am talking about the conflict that distracts employees and managers from otherwise productive use of their time. Studies reveal that up to 30% of a typical managers time is spent dealing with conflict. And that 42 percent of their time is spent reaching agreements with others when conflicts occur.

Sometimes destructive conflict is simply because the people don't like each other. In the universe of family owned companies sometimes brothers, sisters, cousins, and in-laws are thrown together in ways none of them like. Conflict is the only way they have of displaying the frustration they feel about the situation they're in.

It is no wonder that an estimated 65% of performance problems result from strained relationships like these. Between employees who are not happy with each other - not from deficits in their training, skill, or motivation.

The most common way that destructive conflict shows up is about "how" a certain task should be accomplished. I met a farmer once whose son (age 50) refused to do things the way he wanted them done. He sited an example by driving me on the back of his four wheeler (you could not get there any other way) to a field that illustrated his point.

He and his father before him had always plowed the field north to south - his son was plowing it east to west. I am not making this up. It didn't have anything to do with soil erosion, conservation, or the environment - he was doing it this way against his dad's wishes, just to get his goat. And it was working.

I bet you can think of things at your company that are being done a certain way because that's the way they've always been done. And if you're the one who wants to change history, good luck!

Destructive conflict about how things are being done, what things are being done, and whether or not a certain thing should even be done can paralyze the organization.

Wasted time arguing about things that don't matter, an unwillingness to consider another person's point of view based on their experience, and the blame game when the results are in all cry out for a self-help process you can use to manage your differences so that all conflict is creative.

The end result of a successful self-help mediation process is that you (as a group) turn together and focus on the challenge or opportunity you all face. You see the problem as the stumbling block and not your coworker.

Self-help mediation tools allow two individuals the opportunity to discuss their assumptions about the other person's motives. In many conflicts the simple process of testing these assumptions face to face using active listening skills will resolve the issue entirely, because the parties realize the conflict is simply a misunderstanding.

Self-help mediation tools pave the way for more effective decision making. Obviously decisions made under conditions of conflict are going to be inferior to decisions made when cooperation prevails. If ongoing conflict (even a low grade resistance to cooperation) is present between people who share decision-making authority, the resulting decisions are likely to be flawed by the power struggles between those people.

As business owners we know that good decisions must be based on an optimum quality and quantity of objective information. So when information is withheld or distorted by those we are depending on to provide it, the decision cannot be the best one possible.

There is now doubt, workplace conflict resolution strategies - especially those that will allow you to do it yourself - will save you money, time, energy, and enhance your workplace by helping you make better decisions, retain your best employees, and design a future course for the business everyone will actively support!
About the Author
Wayne Messick's web site has additional conflict resolution articles and resources to help you grow your business. If you are a small business advisor and want to maximize your professional and financial potential, here are the resources we are using to ststematically multiply our new business, our revenues, and our client's satisfaction.
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