Seduced by Conflict?

Want to find out if your management team is seduced by conflict? Take this anonymous 2-minute quiz.

“Conflict”… what is the first thought, feeling, or image that crossed your mind when you read that word? The most common mental model is one that describes negative conflict fueled by emotional win-lose, us – them constructs. But, there are just as many cold wars going on with artificial harmony and passive aggressive behaviors. Why are we seduced into believing conflict must be bad, hurtful, or painful and why do we choose non-productive conflict? Two reasons:

  1. Productive conflict requires focused effort on self-mastery, which means changing how we think, feel, and behave – that is no easy task; and
  2. Non-productive conflict masquerades as productivity giving the illusion of progress while sapping focus, resources, and derailing goal achievement.

Bottom line: non-productive conflict costs mid market businesses millions each year!

Productive conflict occurs when two or more people engage in robust yet respectful dialogue followed by a thoughtful discussion for the purposes of making the best possible decisions.  Almost every time I make this statement I get the question, “aren’t dialogue and discussion the same things?” Actually, they are distinct phases of a conversation. 

Dialogue is the free flowing exchange of ideas that explore issues from various vantage points seeking to gather as much relevant information as possible.  It is the divergent part of conflict where individual and group perspectives are expanded, but no decisions are made.  A discussion is the point in a conversation that moves from divergent thinking to convergent thinking where multiple perspectives are synthesized and decisions are made.  Both parts of the conversation are essential for productive conflict.  Without productive conflict it is impossible to efficiently make effective organizational decisions.  The challenge, engaging in productive conflict requires a high degree of trust, transparency, and awareness of both self and other. 

Unfortunately, many management teams are seduced into negative conflict when they skip the dialogue phase in favor of taking action.  When negative conflict dominates the culture people are enabled to make excuses for not taking action, finding someone to blame when things do not go as planned, and hiding from taking ownership for their personal development. After all, “time is money” and dialogue sounds time consuming.  “We’ve got a time line to keep.”  Not only that, “if we engage in dialogue things could get ugly” and I might lose something. When the leadership team holds these mental models they become entrenched throughout the organization with very real, but hidden costs.

On the other hand, engaging in productive conflict requires personal openness to change, trusting colleagues, respecting different perspectives, and investing time to collaboratively explore alternatives.  Even more importantly, it requires the courage to seek understanding before being understood and the willingness to let go of control. These behaviors are not natural they are learned and require intentional acquisition of high-level cognitive and emotional skills.  Reading that paragraph will cause people to start measuring the investment required to change.

How do management teams overcome the inertia of negative conflict when it offers powerfully seductive rewards – including the most seductive reward of all justification for maintaining the status quo? Intentional focused effort and the creation of a culture that values relationships, trust, transparency, accountability, and results.  While it sounds like tremendous effort (and it is), we’ve witnessed the payoff for our clients as increases across three important measures:

  • Profitability: more time focused on productive conversations leads to improved performance.
  • Employee engagement and satisfaction: productive conflict increases psychological safety, improves culture, and quality of life.
  • Customer service and satisfaction: your customers get their needs met more efficiently and experience the benefits of an engaged and satisfied workforce.

If your 2018 goals fell short and you want 2019 to be different, you’ve go to change something. Whether that something is the need to overcome entrenched obstacles, break through barriers, or develop skill and ability on your management team we encourage you to explore how your team may be seduced by conflict. Even a marginal increase in productive conflict has the potential to transform performance and that could make all the difference for achieving success in 2019!

To learn more, consider one of more of the following resources:

  1. Take this anonymous 2-minute quiz to see where your team falls on the spectrum from productive to non-productive conflict.
  2. Watch the HBR webinar or read “The Advantage: Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything Else in Business” by Patrick Lencioni
  3. Read “The Leader on the Couch: A clinical approach to changing people and organizations” by Manfred Kets de Vries (caution, it is a bit “heady”, but filled with excellent case studies.)
  4. Email us ( or set up a time to talk 15-minute call