combat on horsebackAs I began to teach about conflict, I saw a bunch of hesitant faces with those “do we really have to deal with conflict?” expressions.

Most folks I know don’t like to deliberately face conflict. Sure, they can handle objective, professional conflict – with some detachment and calm.  But stir deep emotion into the mix and they’re running for cover. 

But without conflict, we can’t harness the fruits of collaboration and creativity. 

Think a firm full of “yes” men and women!

We need conflict for creativity because conflict is about dealing with differences – and we’ll never get to the best solutions, and real innovation, if all we encourage is sameness.

We  want to encourage some tension in our teams between competing values.

In a hospital system, that tension may be called the conflict between money and mission. In other firms, it may show up as a fight between marketing and finance.  When we get down from our emotional high horses and stop fighting, it becomes clearer that we need to honor many diverse values in order to succeed.  to see that. Chances are we need to maintain all those values –

Often a conflict in values shows up as a personality dispute. When a team calls me in with a conflict, they are usually experiencing some ugly symptoms such as communication breakdowns and differences in styles.

What’s harder to see is how underneath the personality conflict are built-in differences in values that may never go away.  These are often polarities.

Manage the tensions that will never go away

Polarities are  tensions between interlocking values that will never go away – conflicts that are embedded in a system – because you can’t have one pole without the other pole.  Think yin and yang, day and night – we can’t have one side without the other.

I watched as an agency that always applauded individual achievement revised its focus and started promoting teamwork (while forgetting that individual achievement still mattered!)  Sure enough, after a few years, the technical specialists started feeling like their work wasn’t adequately respected – and started wanting to leave – because all the rewards were going to teams.

The solution is simple – yet sometimes difficult to achieve:  Think “both-and”: asking how do we honor both?

Some polarities we all know include the tension between balancing home and work.  If we ignore either side, we’ll feel the consequences.  Or trying separating our concern with our own self interest vs. our concern for others. Emphasize one without the other and you’re in for trouble.

Think both/and:  team and individual

Going back to our team/individual example, as we’re thinking about rewards, processes, and how we use training dollars, we can add one simple question:
Team working together

“How can we maximize team performance while encouraging individual excellence?”

Voila: our thinking is enhanced when we think both/and!

(And fyi –  polarities are everywhere!)

Our stories need conflict

As a storyteller, I listen for conflict. Think how b-o-r-i-n-g it would be to read “Young entrepreneur has a dream.  Successfully raises money. Builds team. Company succeeds – now she is rich.” (Alas, this kind of simplified story keeps being told!).

Instead, I want to hear about what really happened behind the scenes – the bumps along the way, the mistakes, the failures or almost-failures – everything that gives a story texture. Great stories always include some conflict. I want to root for a heroine who learns how to work her way through conflicts on her journey.  She’s my gal – not the one for whom everything mysteriously works out!

Healthy conflict is needed in any group. How about you? What do you do to manage conflict creatively – for yourself and with others?