In times like these, it is essential to remind ourselves that conflicts aren’t
necessarily bad; in fact, they can be reasonable and necessary. The problem isn’t the conflict, the problem is how we deal with conflict.
The ability to cooperate with other people is essential, even necessary, for
success in organizations as well as life in general. Cooperation is often understood as an ability to work well with others, but the real key to successful collaboration is more about managing conflicts and encouraging healthy dissent than always getting along.
Creativity, in both individuals and groups, is a process of questioning established “truths” and looking at challenges in new ways. Dissent is, in essence, a necessary component of creativity. While Austrian economist and philosopher Joseph Schumpeter’s idea of “creative destruction” has primarily been used to describe or defend various elements of capitalism, it is equally valid regarding all forms of creativity. The new always, at least to some extent, destroys the old. To identify new and better solutions; we must be open to questioning existing solutions.
Management is critical in conflicts
The secret is how we deal with conflicts and encourage what I call “healthy
When it comes to conflict, the sad truth in many organizations, and I suspect in most societies, in general, isn’t that there are too many conflicts, the the problem is that there is too little conflict management.
Conflicts are generally seen as problems that prevent us from doing or achieving what we want and are often ignored or swept under the rug instead of dealing with them. Many conflicts can be resolved by addressing and identifying all key stakeholders and their interests and concerns seriously.
Conflicts don’t disappear because we ignore them; often, they worsen and become more challenging to resolve. After long enough, various stakeholders may not even recall the original underlying conflict; they may even inherit a conflict from their predecessors, never questioning or understanding the real reasons for the conflict.
Conflict management is a no loose proposition; at worst, the conflict will not be resolved, but often, honest, considered attempts at resolving conflicts lead to better circumstances for everyone involved.
I opened this article by encouraging dissent. Later I incorporated the term “healthy dissent.” But how can I suggest that dissent is reasonable, even necessary, at a time when it feels like dissent is out of control?
At the time of writing this article, we have just passed a year since a group of “dissenters” stormed the US Capital, and at the moment, we have seen dissenters in Canada blocking highways. We see dissent in the form of anti-vaxers and even dissent within anti-vaxers, some against all vaccination and others only against some vaccines. And now, we see a conflict that has grown into a full-scale war in Ukraine.
The concept of “healthy dissent” is more complex than simple dissent. Healthy dissent involves dissent within groups who are striving for the good of the group towards common goals and/or common purpose. Real groups are defined by themselves, not by others.
Groups matter - but not always as intended
When I help businesses and government organizations deal with dissent, I often find that a big part of the problem lies in our assumptions about how we define groups. Management often assumes that the group is determined by the organization, but individual people within the organization may not see the the corporate group as an essential or meaningful group from their perspectives.
Formal groups are often defined by organizational diagrams and or geography; departments, divisions, regions, countries, etc. Informal groups exist in all organizations in the form of groups of colleagues with common interests or groups of friends within an organization. A key element of Putin’s rhetoric has been to attempt to redefine Ukrainian people as Russians. Most Ukrainians have vehemently opposed that definition. In this example, Putin sees redefining the group as a means to justify his invasion. On a smaller scale, I see this happen in everyday life, for example, when managers reorganize their organizations in essence imposing group belonging on people who had grown to identify with their old organizational group.
Following are a few tips for managing conflicts.
Tips for successfully handling conflicts:
1. Take the bull by the horn! The longer you wait to deal with a conflict, the worse it will become.
2. See conflict as an asset, a normal and necessary component of growth and improvement.
3. Define all the stakeholders. Who are the ones affected by or directly involved in the conflict?
4. What needs or desires do each stakeholder hold in this conflict?
5. Keep your mind open to what Stephen Covey calls the “third alternative.”
The solution is often not your way or my way but another way!
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