Conflict. After generations of bad press, there now seems to be a collective agreement that conflict is a good thing. Leadership literature is rife with articles and theories on the value of conflict—for creating high performing teams, for innovating, and for decision making. In essence, good, productive conflict is seen as a vital tool for ensuring that all points of view are shared, debated, and taken into consideration.
But there is still some confusion about the term conflict. When we ask women in our leadership program about their experiences of conflict at work, we hear less about the usefulness of conflict and much more about conflicts that have gone wrong—conflicts that get nasty and personal, or conflicts due to competition, politics, and ambition.
Though there is a growing awareness of the value of conflict, there is still a lot of confusion and misconceptions about it [almost as much as there is about authenticity in the workplace but we’ll save that for another post].
For this reason, it’s important clarify what we mean by conflict, because while some conflict may be productive and helpful, there is also conflict that is not, and embracing conflict that leads to toxicity, withdrawn or defensive co-workers, and dysfunctional team dynamics is not good for anyone.
In our work, we take time to parse out kinds of conflict. Working with leaders across industries and in a variety of settings, we see three kinds of conflict at play.
What many people call personality clashes, or personal conflict, we call triggered conflict. We refer to it as ‘triggered’ because it is caused by reactivity—someone reacts to a comment, an email, or someone else’s style, personality, or behavior. These are the kinds of conflict that result in long-standing feuds, in people unable or unwilling to work together, with gossip, blaming, and shaming.
In most cases triggered conflict is not actually conflict, to begin with at least, but the result of an assumption about someone else, and then a consequent reaction that triggers a reaction on the other side, and thus, a conflict is born. This kind of conflict is rarely if at all productive, and tends to infect everyone in the vicinity of the conflict. Learning how to manage one’s own reactivity, developing tools for trigger awareness and management goes a long way towards reducing this kind of conflict.
You often hear the term “passive-aggressive” in the workplace. Passive-aggressive refers to someone who appears compliant or agreeable but is indirectly or covertly obstructive or negative. Passive-aggressive people develop the reputation for not being accountable because while they say yes, they deliver no.
Passive-aggressive conflict is one kind—perhaps the most well-known kind—of what we call ‘indirect conflict,’ negativity, disagreement, and hostility that is submerged. It lives below the surface, yet everyone feels it and reacts to it. Indirect conflict is disagreeing or arguing “off the record,” A way to say no without having to say so.
Indirect conflict is endemic in the workplace. Though it doesn’t rise to the level of overt conflict, it certainly creates tension. You feel it in the tone of an email or message, in the abrupt change of topic to avoid having a conversation, and in the not-so-subtle nonverbal cues of eye rolling, sighing, head shaking, and in sarcasm, backhanded compliments, or playing the victim.
Indirect conflict, like triggered conflict, has a toxic effect on the environment. But because it’s ‘off record,’ it can’t be addressed directly. This lack of direct communication and feedback breeds gossip and paranoia because people aren’t sure what’s actually meant, and can end up not trusting their own perceptions.
There’s a well-known story about Alfred P. Sloan, the legendary president, chairman and CEO of General Motors. Presiding over a meeting of one of his top committees, he asked, “Gentlemen (and at that time you can be certain it was all gentlemen), I take it we are all in complete agreement on the decision here?” Everyone around the table nodded. Noting the unanimous agreement, Sloan continued, “Then I propose we postpone further discussion of this matter until our next meeting to give ourselves time to develop disagreement and perhaps gain some understanding of what the decision is all about.”
That’s productive conflict. Or, more concisely, as General George Patton said,
“If everyone is thinking alike, then somebody isn’t thinking.”
Productive conflict is a thinking exercise—a full, robust, and useful hashing out of viewpoints, opinions, and positions on things. It’s the kind of conflict Patrick Lencioni describes in his book, The 5 Dysfunctions of a Team. Productive conflict is healthy and can resolve issues and produce the best possible solutions in the shortest period of time. Teams that know how to have productive conflict know how to have heated yet respectful debates. Productive conflict, while occasionally heated, never leaves a scar; because it is not personal or nasty, there are no residual feels of hurt. In fact, because everyone is able to fully voice their perspective, they are more willing to put aside their own viewpoint and get on-board with the decision.
Productive conflict bonds people together. It moves things forward, even things that have been stuck for a long time. And productive conflict leads to great thinking and innovation, and adds value to our teams and organizations.
Knowing these three kinds of conflict will help you know what you are dealing with—which kinds of conflict to avoid and minimize by working on your reactivity, which kinds of conflict to surface in order to clear the air, and which kinds of conflict to lean into with energy and enthusiasm in order to move your team forward.