The birthplace of all conflicts is our diversity; as human beings, we are both attracted by the “new and different” and at the same time genetically programmed to be suspicious about it.
Conflicts usually start from different views about some judgmental matters. When an aligned choice needs to be made about a judgmental matter, different views can only in principle work as complementary; the reality is that differences often collide and crash. Why? The simple answer is: because complementarity takes time and energy.
Cross-functional business teams experience the challenge of complementarity on a daily basis and they get often trapped into the paradox of WANTING TO ENCOURAGE open disagreement (in principle) and yet FIGHTING AGAINST IT (in reality).
The subject is not simple and extensive research has gone into both understanding the genesis of conflicts in various contexts (e.g. political, religious, organisational) and proposing strategies to improve our collective “performance” in conflict situations.
The majority of strategies that are usually applied in the organisational context are of two types, resolution strategies or preventive strategies.
Conflict Resolution Strategies involve corrective interventions to an existing, perceived, or emerging conflict; the intervention methods may involve negotiation, mediation or arbitration. Most business leaders are trained in negotiation skills (e.g. Win-Win Negotiations, Positive Power and Influence; Getting to Yes) as part of their leadership development curriculum, while they usually depend upon third-party interventions by expert mediators or arbitrators in cases where the conflict degenerates and/or appears to involve compliance infractions (note: this is often a grey and judgmental area)
Realising that acting earlier rather than later, i.e. preventing is a more effective approach than resolving, modern leaders, researchers, coaches and trainers have increasingly focused on Preventing Conflict Management Strategies, i.e. strategies that encourage open dialogue and train teams to trust, respect, listen, share and co-create. Some of the most successful approaches are “Crucial Conversations” and “Non-Violent Communication”. Also, it is worth mentioning a very recent HBR publication by Ginka Toegel and Jean-Louis Barsoux (IMD- Lausanne) that suggests a simple, highly practical and comprehensive five-step method called the Five Conversations: a process that is focussed on “exploring the differences that might hinder team collaboration in a moment when the pressure is off”, bringing up awareness, acceptance and trust.
As leaders, we need to learn both to prevent and to resolve conflicts. However, there is one more area worth exploring.
Both preventing and resolving strategies stem from the desire to remove or reduce the negative consequences of unproductive confrontations; however, a few leaders, researchers, coaches and trainers have started to put their fingers on an interesting aspect of disagreements, open dissent and conflicts: they all tend to correlate with innovation. It appears that a certain level of controversy is needed in order to “spike” our individual and collective creativity and induce a major leap into “novelty land”. Just think about the examples of PIXAR and Googles, as studied by Harvard professor Linda Hill. She stresses that a different set of leadership skills are needed in order to foster a culture of co-creation and innovation, than what is usually required to implement a vision or execute a strategy and a plan. This set of skills include the ability to fiercely advocate alternative views, the stamina to weather uncertainties and the confidence to trust that the future will emerge from the chaos, without a plan.
Here we see the dilemma.
Most leaders take pride in driving ahead competently and efficiently, without letting overly creative challenges rock their boat; if a challenge comes their way, they want to resolve it quickly and continue on the paved road; conflicts should be kept to a minimum, because harmony is seen as more productive.
Yet innovation requires that we stop resolving in order to challenge the status quo; it requires that we move away from the safety of executional planning and weather the uncertainties and ambiguities of the collective creative chaos.
I infer that, in addition to learning the skills to resolve and prevent conflicts, today’s leaders need to also learn the skills needed to encourage healthy disagreements and conflicts. This is a scary endeavour that requires a lot of confidence. As beautifully told by Brené Brown, we cannot innovate unless we master the courage to be vulnerable and face shame. We cannot innovate unless we build the confidence to be authentically “who we are, not who we think we should be”. We need to learn the courage to advocate a lost cause, to set aside the desires to convince, be right, be liked or win. We need to clear our head of fears, worries and biases.
This is the third road: by all means leaders need to learn to resolve and especially to prevent conflicts; but they also need to learn how to develop the confidence to encourage conflicts in order to innovate and co-create.
One of our suggested approaches is the neuroscience-based C.L.E.A.R. ™ Mindset Method, a simple no-nonsense approach that helps to:
1. raise our awareness around the cognitive biases that prevent us from being confident and influential in front of confrontations and uncertainties, and
2. shows the path to stimulate a healthy level of disagreement, leading to co-creation of positive change
See also previous article on the 3 main biases.
Title photo by © Amyinlondon