Using Conflict as a Strategic Asset

“Don't be afraid of opposition. Remember, a kite rises against – not with – the wind.” ~ Hamilton Wright Mabie

Wouldn’t life be easier if we could just make decisions in a vacuum and not worry about what others thought? Of course it would, but the business world today is focused more and more on fostering teamwork. Teams increase the complexity of decision-making because they are composed of members with diverse backgrounds. Naturally, when you get a group of diverse people come together to make a decision, there will be conflict. However, conflict is not necessarily 100% bad. In fact, it can actually be beneficial, ensuring that the team looks at a problem from all angles and that all information is considered.

Task Conflict vs. Relationship Conflict

Two types of conflict typically arise in a team setting – task conflict and relationship conflict.  Task conflict is most often beneficial for decision making, while relationship conflict is often a deterrent. Task conflict involves disagreements about the content of decisions and differences in viewpoints, ideas and opinions. Examples include conflicts over judgments and interpretations of facts, how resources are deployed for a project, and the steps necessary to complete a project. 

Relationship conflict, or emotional conflict, involves interpersonal incompatibility and typically results in tension, annoyance and animosity among team members. Examples include conflicts over personal tastes, political preferences, values and interpersonal style. The most effective teams promote task conflict and avoid escalating relationship content.

Common Pitfalls

Conflict management is not the same as conflict avoidance. When we avoid conflict altogether, we limit the chance to obtain valuable information that may affect the decision-making process. For example, a team might go with the first suggestion offered just to avoid a confrontation. However, the person making the suggestion may have made it only because he or she thought it would be met with the least resistance. The result is a decision that no one on the team really supports. The right type of conflict can be healthy if it is managed correctly. Some process failures lead to unhealthy conflict within a team, or let healthy conflict morph into the unhealthy type. The more common failures are listed below:

  • Using “majority rules” as a decision rule – Team members who sense bias from the majority often fail to offer a dissenting opinion to avoid looking like the outsider or the impedance to making a decision.
  • Excessive deference to unhelpful status characteristics – There is a wealth of knowledge at all levels of the firm. Simply letting the person with seniority, or the one with the loudest opinion, make a decision can lead to bad decisions.
  • Attacking dissenters – Teams tend to look down on dissension since it increases the time to make a decision. Similar to “majority rules,” attacking those who dissent limits the number of diverse viewpoints offered during the decision-making process.

As previously mentioned, a team should encourage task conflict and avoid escalating relationship conflict. Some strategies to accomplish this are listed below:

Encourage Task Conflict:

  • Do not vote to start a meeting. Rather, begin by discussing/debating the issues to flush out all available information, and then attempt to work through differences of opinion.
  • Do not compromise to end the conflict. A team must recognize the value of debate because it helps everyone explore more issues and, ultimately, make a better decision.
  • Solicit minority opinion. Make sure that people aren’t keeping quiet just to avoid the uncomfortable feeling of being in the minority. The most valuable information may come from those who don’t agree with the majority.

Avoid Escalation of Relationship Conflict:

  • Focus on the behavior/issue and NOT the individual. This is the most important – and most difficult – part of conflict management. When a debate becomes personal, the natural tendency is to become defensive. When people get defensive, healthy conflict quickly turns into an argument.
  • Give feedback to problematic individuals. Coach those who make things personal. Help them approach differences by focusing on the behavior/issue.
  • Isolate negative personality traits. This is done best by putting people into roles that emphasize their positive qualities and push negative ones to the background.

Working as a team naturally leads to conflict, which most people avoid because it is uncomfortable. However, conflict can be beneficial to decision making if it is managed appropriately. The first step is to understand how to spot different types of conflict. The next step is to apply general rules to manage both varieties. (Note that to do this, a team leader must listen carefully to team members and hear the messages they convey.)

It is also important to develop a process to follow when conflict arises. This creates consistency, which helps people understand how to deal with a tense situation. Ultimately, the ability to manage conflict can turn what you thought was a liability into one of your firm’s greatest assets.