Using Conflict Constructively

Whatever you do today, it will make another scene in your leadership story.  If it were part of an HBO series, would it be interesting to watch?  Stories worth paying attention to are powered by drama – tension, conflict, opposition.  If a leadership story doesn’t have a protagonist who’s making trouble – purposeful, thoughtful, intentional – it isn’t much of a story.

conflict is an engine

Conflict is easy to recognize, exactly because drama at work is something to be avoided.  Or is it?  Operatic, fruitless conflict, yes. How can we change our minds about conflict to make it more like a pivotal scene in a fascinating story rather than an recurring scene in a tired melodrama?

As a starting point, it’s easy to recognize three kinds of conflict: careless, habitual, and thoughtful.

Careless conflict makes great scenes in which the actor’s performance eclipses the story.  We remember the person and the behavior, but not the purpose.  In the interest of keeping drama at bay, people learn to keep the volume down. To avoid those scenes, we pre-empt conditions that trigger it.  This can lead to avoidance.  Leaders pay attention to the patterns of careless conflict and the avoidance that ensures.  They step in to investigate, appreciate, and address it.

Thoughtful conflict is the kind that makes good stories.  It has a beginning, middle, and an end.  Start by learning and appreciating the perspectives around you.  Wading in to stir the pot will make things interesting, but it drains the trust you’ve worked so hard to build.  Often thoughtful conflict is productive because it unblocks an impasse.  So the middle of the story often requires patient, deliberate conflict.  Ron Heifetz calls this regulated distress.  Your goal is to generate an encounter with the need to change, the big rocks that that systems and techniques alone can’t blast through.   In fact, he says that “a leader helps expose conflict, viewing it as the engine of creativity and learning.”Habitual conflict can arise from best intentions.  Folks who hold high standards and challenge conventional thinking can fall into a rut.  Nothing is right, good, efficient, creative, profitable, or practical enough.  It’s easy to see this in others, but what about ourselves?  What is the point of diminishing returns on habitual conflict?  Leaders pay attention to opposers, challenge their habit, and investigate the risk – to the company and themselves – that they’re trying to address.

What engine is powered by the conflict you usually engage in?

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