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Leadership Lesson #6: Understand the Power of Conflict

by George Virtue, CPA, CA, Managing Partner

Often I will start a new consulting engagement with the statement that “I love conflict”. This is certainly a way to get the attention of the group – and then I explain myself before everyone gets up and leaves!

According to Patrick Lencioni in The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, conflict ranges on a scale from vicious personal attack to artificial harmony. Obviously I am not a proponent of personal attack – but I am equally opposed to living in a culture of artificial harmony where we pretend that things are good and avoid speaking up for fear of “rocking the boat”. The perfect place to be is in between these two extremes perhaps weighted a bit closer to harmony to avoid unintentional attack.

Have you ever been in a meeting where the leader puts an idea forward that you disagree with? How did you react? Did you state your disagreement or did you look around the room to see if anyone else was going to speak up? Did you decide that expressing your position was not worth the “pain” that would be created when the strong leader belittled you in front of the team? Perhaps you were that strong leader and assumed that everyone was in favor of your idea because nobody disagreed at the meeting. If so, were you surprised to hear that others were expressing their disagreement in the hallway after the meeting ended? If these situations sound familiar then you need to understand the power of conflict.

Conflict is simply the result of different ideas or solutions to a problem. Raising and then resolving conflict is how we get to the best idea or solution. Usually the ultimate solution is not identical to any of the original thoughts – it is a new solution built from conflict.

Not only do I love conflict, I “mine” for it. Here is how I do that.

When I work with management teams I insist on one important ground rule for the meeting: “Don’t make it personal and don’t take it personal”. Once the team has agreed to this, I emphasize that the only reason anyone is making a comment is to generate a better solution. Next, I listen to what is being said and what is not being said. I observe body language. I listen for verbal tones. I watch for rolling eyeballs! Then I ask questions in a manner that make it safe for others to disagree. For example, “That’s a good start, Harvey. Jeff, do you have some thought on how we could improve on that or is there a different direction that you think we should consider?” I keep asking until it is clear that everyone is on the same page. And then, I restate in clear terms exactly what the group decision was and ask if I got it right.

Mining for conflict is hard. It can be scary. And, as discussed in Lesson 5, without a foundation of trust it might be impossible. But if you really want to generate better ideas, better solutions and better commitment to decisions made by the team, you must embrace conflict. Avoid artificial harmony. Bring on the conflict!  

Click here for a downloadable PDF of Leadership Lesson #6: Understand the Power of Conflict

Click here to read Leadership Lesson #5: Build a Real Team
Click here to read Leadership Lesson #4: Choose Your Culture
Click here to read Leadership Lesson #3: Figure Out Where You Want to Go and How You Will Get There
Click here to read Leadership Lesson #2: Make Sure that Everyone (Including You) is Doing the Right Job
Click here to read Leadership Lesson #1: Get the Right People on the Team

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