It may surprise my coworkers (though not my wife) that I don’t like conflict. I like to make nice. Tension among people is very uncomfortable for me.
The hard lesson I have learned over the years is that dealing with conflict is like that old commercial about changing the oil in your car–pay now or pay later. It is much less painful regarding conflict and oil changes to pay now. If you let conflict simmer or fester (to mix metaphors), it can only get worse.
That’s what I was thinking when I recently was talking to someone from another organization. He was concerned about the growing number of critical comments coming his way from the rank and file. Didn’t people know that was unhealthy and could just drag things down? I found myself saying, “Don’t be too quick to wish away squabbles and complaints.” If you artificially suppress these without dealing with them, worse will come in one form or another.
There are two kinds of conflict–bad conflict and good conflict. Bad conflict lurks under the surface, runs through the conversations of only a few people, questions the motivations of others, sets an undertone of tension that others don’t quite understand, and poisons an organization. Good conflict gets things out in the open, allows all sides to be heard equally, gives others the benefit of the doubt when it comes to motivation, has a clear and open process that everyone is made aware of early, and ultimately brings health to the organization.
Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni is an extremely valuable book on this topic. I recommend it for every leader–even if you don’t think your organization has conflict or is dysfunctional. Lencioni does an excellent job of helping us identify those problems that are hiding under the surface–problems that we don’t see ourselves or don’t want to admit are there.
Conflict done right takes courage. Without it, well, pay me later.