Healthy conflict for a good cause

A few weeks ago, one of my business partners and I spent time with four executives who argued relentlessly and disagreed about everything.

Positions were staked. Sides were taken. Everyone dug in.

It was awesome. In fact, it was one of the healthiest, most productive groups we’ve facilitated in months.

Many people think conflict management is synonymous with conflict avoidance. To the contrary, conflict in an organization – when it’s healthy, productive, and professional – should be welcome and, in fact, pursued.

Far too often, conflict and disagreements remain unspoken. Some people choose not to verbalize their disagreement; they keep it to themselves. Worse yet, some people take their beefs to someone else, a co-worker whom they hope to win over as an ally.

These actions may prevent the initial awkwardness of open disagreements. But they can result in resentment, spite, or an undercurrent of mistrust. On a larger scale, a conflict-averse culture means that good ideas – that could ultimately improve revenue or organizational health – are not voiced. And that’s not fair to your colleagues or organization.

When it’s done right, healthy conflict opens the lines of honest communication. It removes hidden agendas and challenges the status quo. It ensures that the best ideas are presented, debated, and fully considered.

The operative word here is “healthy.” What does healthy conflict look like?

First, it’s not personal. Challenge the behavior or the idea, but don’t hit below the belt. Keep it professional and be honest, even if it stings a bit.

Second, healthy conflict doesn’t give you a license to steamroll over the people with whom you disagree. You have to listen. Keep an open mind. Consider others’ viewpoints. Good conflict isn’t just a one-way ticket for you to “give them a piece of my mind.”

Third, pay attention to how you respond when someone disagrees with or challenges you. The surest way to kill an environment of open dialogue is to instinctively dismiss or disrespect the person who brings it to you. They’re showing trust that you’ll receive the feedback as you had intended. When you receive it like a pro, and you’re reciprocating that trust and respect.

And finally, even if you can’t agree, find some sort of resolution. Don’t let it damage your relationship or impede progress of the organization. Figure out how to coexist with your disagreements.

Organizations thrive when people learn how to disagree openly, passionately, and respectfully.

Russ Florence is a partner at Schnake Turnbo Frank and shares a monthly column with the Journal Record.