Effectively managing conflict in the workplace has been a topic on my mind for some time now. Having a new topic on your mind is kind of like buying a new car; you start to notice it everywhere. Now that I am thinking about effectively managing conflict, I am starting to see conflict or opportunities for healthy conflict everywhere. One of the most challenging things for one to think through as they try to create a healthy conflict culture is figuring out exactly what is worth ‘fighting over’ and what isn’t.
One has to be careful not to let the pendulum swing too far in the other direction, and turn everything into a ‘fighting moment.’ It’s very easy to get ‘caught up’ in disagreements about all sorts of details that aren’t worth the time. That’s not the kind of culture anyone wants to create. Healthy conflict has to be effectively separated from petty conflict.
Three tests to figure out what topics are worth fighting for
So far, based on my reading and studying of the subject, there are three tests that a topic can pass to be worth engaging in healthy debate and conflict over:
- Does a successful outcome create value for the organization?
- Is the nature of the problem multi-dimensional, and not simply a matter of expertise/lack-of-information?
- Will driving to a decision with multiple perspectives at the table create lasting change?
Three types of thinking
The second bullet is perhaps the hardest one to figure out. I think that Dr. Saj-nicole Joni describes the concept pretty well in her book titled “The Third Opinion.” She describes three types of thinking:
- Application thinking: This is basic thinking that involves known problems and solutions. Imagine reading a how-to manual to solve a printer problem.
- Expert thinking: This is more complex specialized thinking that requires expert help. Perhaps the printer has a broken part that needs repaired.
- Exponential thinking: This is for complex problems that don’t necessarily have simple right answers. Typically, multiple perspectives will help create a better answer. Perhaps our goal is now to design a better printer.
The key to finding the right problems lays in exponential thinking. The first two types of problems are typically too simple to try and bring multiple perspectives to the table on. Also, there is likely to be one right answer that is simply a matter of knowledge or expertise.
It all takes energy
The key takeaway for me here is that conflict takes energy and time. For most of us (especially me) it has a sapping effect. I don’t necessarily love conflict, and I suspect that I am not alone. So it’s important to find the right balance of it, and it’s even more important to do it for the right reasons. While no acid test is perfect, the one above has been pretty effective for me so far!