I have been asked two questions recently that I think are linked.
One, in a virtual teams workshop, was “How do we drive out the egos that cause conflict in our organization?” The other was from a journalist asking “How do we stop conflict in organizations?”
My answer in both cases was “Why would you want to do that?”
It is strongly held opinions and passions that drive a lot of the best work in organizations. If we don’t have differences of opinion or perspective then either we have stopped thinking or we’ve recruited a monoculture of people with identical ideas. If we don’t fight these different perspectives strongly, then we don’t really care. Neither of these options are very healthy.
I think that underlying these questions is a lack of confidence or capability to deal with the consequences of conflict. Conflict can feel uncomfortable, but it doesn’t have to be negative – provided we have the skills to resolve conflict, it can be a useful source of energy and creativity.
Let’s recognise, of course, that unresolved conflict tends to re-occur, and can be very damaging for a team or organization. Similarly, it is not enough just to have a blow-up. Clearing the air may make us feel better for a few days, but if the underlying issues haven’t been resolved, then they will come up again.
In my book “Making the Matrix Work”, I have a chapter on creating and coping with conflict. It focuses on some of the challenges in even understanding when we are in conflict in virtual or global organizations, and on understanding and using a simple conflict sequence for resolving underlying problems.
Complex organization structures like the matrix increase the number of stakeholders and reporting lines. They do tend to correlate with higher levels of conflict, so equipping managers in particular with the skills to resolve conflict is essential.
My advice is not to be afraid of conflict, but to use it as a source of impetus for change, creativity and energy. If we drive out ego and conflict, our organizations would become very sterile and boring. In fact, I would argue that, if there is no conflict, perhaps people have given up and don’t really care about their work.
To make sure you resolve conflict in a healthy way, make sure that it’s acceptable for conflict to be explicit, but also that you have the skills in place to resolve the underlying issues.