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Productive Conflict

Collaboration may not always be the best approach. When a team is clear on the job to be done, working together is a good way to make progress. Everyone agrees, everyone works efficiently and in harmony, and off we all go! But, what about when we’re trying to…


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This Pivot: How we can bring conflict to our centre in a constructive way.

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Collaboration may not always be the best approach.

When a team is clear about the job they have to do, working together is a good way to make progress. Everyone agrees, everyone works efficiently and in harmony, and off we all go! But what about when we’re trying to decide what the target should be?

When we’re hunting for lots of ideas and solutions, it’s a case of the more the merrier. Is collaboration the best way to find these diverse ideas? Could it be that a rather idealised notion of the magic of teamwork makes us less effective?

Would a little more stirring debate, discussion and disagreement help?

A little more conflict?

Today there is a strong tendency to always try to keep things agreeable in our interactions with others. Strong social norms (and an almost universal human dislike of confrontation) exert considerable pressure on us to keep things affable and running smoothly. We almost instinctively strive for collaboration. We accept, almost without thinking, that conflict and collaboration are opposites: one is good and to be prized, and the other is bad and to be avoided.

However, that runs the risk of everyone thinking the same.

And I've always said, 'If two people are thinking the same thing about everything, one of them isn't necessary.' We need to be able to understand that if we're going to make real progress. - Ben Carson

Getting Productive

When we’re looking for new ideas and solutions to problems, we need people to think differently.

We don’t need polite collaboration. 

We need the rough and tumble, push and shove of opinions and suggestions. We need to let tension, disagreement and divergence go to work to improve the value of ideas on the table and expose any flaws and risks. That’s where our progress will come from.

We need conflict to:

  • improve the quality of decisions;
  • stimulate involvement in discussions;
  • arouse creativity and imagination;
  • facilitate employee growth;
  • increase movement toward goals;
  • create an energetic climate;
  • build more synergy and cohesion among team members;
  • foster new ideas, alternatives, and solutions; and
  • test positions and beliefs.

(Source: AviationPros)

Smiling and building politely on one another’s suggestions is incremental thinking - the kind of thinking that can easily leave good ideas and faulty assumptions undetected.

Productive Conflict

The aim of an argument or discussion should not be victory, but progress. - Joseph Joubert

Conflict is positive (productive) when it:

  • causes people to consider different ideas and alternatives;
  • results in increased participation and more commitment to the decisions and goals of the group;
  • results in issue clarification and/or reassessment; and
  • helps build cohesiveness as people learn more about each other.

It’s destructive (non-productive) when it:

  • leads to bullying, harassment, or discrimination;
  • diverts energy from more important issues and tasks;
  • polarises groups so that cooperation is reduced; and
  • destroys the morale of people, or reinforces poor self-concepts.

(Source: OSU Edu)

If we let conflict get out of hand, we’ll be faced with confrontation, with combatants working hard to ‘beat’ each other rather than finding real solutions. That’s a very distasteful and very damaging outcome, and rightly something we would need to control.

It’s not conflict that’s the opposite of collaboration; it’s confrontation.

If we manage it carefully, we can bring productive or positive conflict into our organisation and reap the benefits of better ideas and more robust solutions.

Then we can all collaborate.

But first, it helps to understand why people don't stand up for their beliefs and bring important differences to the table.

The Spiral of Silence

Originally proposed by German political scientist Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann in 1974, the “spiral of silence” was an attempt to explain how public (or group) opinion is formed.

The phrase itself refers to the tendency of people to remain silent when they feel their views are not those of the majority.

There are three major assumptions of the theory:

  1. Individuals have an innate ability to recognise what the prevailing opinion of a group is.
  2. Individuals have a fear of isolation from their group.
  3. Individuals have a fear of reprisal or vengeance (which can cause more extreme isolation or exclusion).

According to these assumptions, people feel they know what the majority thinks. They then tend not to talk out loud unless they feel that their views correspond to mainstream. On the other hand, if people think that their views are close to that of the majority they will express their views more often and more forcefully, which reinforces the notion that those views are those of the majority.

Those with an alternative view tend to remain increasingly silent.

This is the centrifugal force that accelerates the spiral of silence. The stronger the moral component in the discussion the stronger the effect.

In the end one view dominates, not because it’s the best, but because some (or many) of the participants feel driven to silence.

This is not a good outcome for an early learning centre manager wanting to get to the best ideas from their team.

We need our staff to speak up.

If you have an apple and I have an apple and we exchange these apples then you and I will still have one apple. But if you have an idea and I have an idea and we exchange these ideas, then each of us will have two ideas. – George Bernard Shaw

Encouraging Productive Conflict

People are not going to embrace productive conflict just because we tell them to. We must convince them that it is safe to do so and that they are creating value for our organisation when they do.

A good first step is to emphasise to staff that the different roles in our centre (teaching staff, head teachers, administrators, managers, etc.) have different priorities and agendas, and that they are each supposed to ‘fight’ for the best outcome from their point of view. They are doing their jobs (and being good team players) by advocating for different courses of action.

To normalise and encourage productive conflict, we should consider setting ground rules around dissension too. Ideally, we should ask our team to define the behaviours that they feel contribute to productive conflict and those that detract from it. That gives everyone a clear picture of what is, and is not, acceptable behaviour.

During debate, we should consider implementing the following actions:

  1. Tell our staff emphatically (and often) that we want them to speak up when they disagree or have an opinion that is different from others in the group.
  2. Make it a practice to have others express their opinion before we offer our own. We should avoid starting with those likely to have a strong or dogmatic opinion, or who are accomplished and confident speakers and debaters. Managers come last!
  1. Reward, recognise and thank the team members who are willing to take a stand and argue their position. We should publically thank those who are brave enough to disagree with the direction of the group.
  2. Establish a group norm that conflict around ideas and direction is expected. We should discourage tacit agreement by actively prodding staff.
  3. Keep a close eye out for signs that our conflict is getting out of hand and take appropriate action (adjourn the meeting, move to another topic or make a decision that settles the outcome).
  4. Expect people to support their opinions and recommendations with facts. When they do, we should allow them to argue vigorously.
  5. Appoint a ‘devil’s advocate’ whose function is to question the veracity of evidence and propose alternative explanations.

We should recognise that while team members have role-based perspectives, they will also bring along their personalities too. Some people are risk takers, others conservative; some will have strong ethical or moral views, others may be ‘more flexible’; some will study the detail, others will jump to the big picture. We need to realise when tensions stem from personal diversity and give team members with minority personality perspectives the responsibility to speak up.

Finally, if healthy work conflict is not occurring, we might have to sit down with the people who report to us directly and ask them why.

Food for Thought…

  • Collaboration may not always be the best approach.
  • Better ideas come from productive conflict.
  • Conflict that develops into confrontation is not helpful.
  • The spiral of silence can keep minority opinions from being aired.
  • There are steps we can take to foster productive conflict.

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